- In 2021, Cambodia’s government began enforcing a ban on farming in designated conservation zones around the Tonle Sap wetland, moving to protect the health of this vital fishery but also disrupting the lives of thousands of farmers who live around the lake.
- With general elections scheduled for July, authorities now appear to be taking a softer line on enforcing the ban; in December 2022, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the boundaries of the conservation zone be redrawn by the end of May this year.
- Subsistence farmers, who experts say have been given little support to find alternate forms of livelihood, wait as their futures hang in the balance.
- This story was produced in partnership with fellows of the Global Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, Writing, and Media.
KORK THLORK, Cambodia — Vorn Keo, perched on the edge of a green wooden boat, navigates through the flooded forest of Tonle Sap Lake and across the boundary into a designated conservation area. Several feet below the water is Keo’s farmland, where his family has grown rice since 1952.
In November 2021 the Cambodian government began enforcing a decade-old ban on farming in the conservation zone, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of Keo and more than 15,000 families around the lake.
The ban is intended to conserve the lake’s declining fish stocks, which provide 60% of the protein consumed in Cambodia.
Keo and many other rice farmers weren’t aware of the ban until the crackdown began. Now, months before a national election, officials are backpedaling on the conservation effort, returning land to some farmers while leaving others, like Keo, uncertain about their fate.
“I feel that if I cannot farm, I will be very upset. I will be very, very upset,” he says.
Getting his farm back is complicated by the tenuous land titling system in Cambodia.
Records of land ownership were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the extremist Marxist regime that seized power in 1975 and killed at least 1.7 million people. When forces from neighboring Vietnam removed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Vorn Keo was among the surviving Cambodians who returned home. Despite World Bank-supported efforts in the early 2000s to grant land titles, Keo never received one.
In 2011, the government divided the Tonle Sap flood plain into Zones 1 and 2 where farming is allowed, and Zone 3, where farming is banned.
But in December 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered authorities to redraw the conservation boundaries by the end of May this year.
Cambodian provinces bordering Tonle Sap Lake have requested rezoning for swaths of land for agriculture, which would allow farmers to return.
Last year, with no land to grow rice, Keo relied on alternative sources of income, including his family’s vegetable trading business.
This year, though, farming ban or not, Keo and other residents in his village of Kork Thlork in Siem Reap, a province in northern Cambodia, did what they’ve done every January since before the crackdown: they planted rice seeds.
He says the community is confident the ban won’t be enforced this year, because of the upcoming election.
“There is that sense that you can do things in the run-up to an election [and the government] will let you get away with things. Because they’re bringing you on side,” says Alice Beban, a senior lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand.
This pre-election strategy has helped Hun Sen hold onto power for decades, she says. In the 1990s, Hun Sen appealed to voters by distributing food and traditional scarves. Now, Beban says, his strategy is more sophisticated: he promises land.
And even while the ruling party has “effectively shut down the opposition,” — its leader was recently sentenced to 27 years in prison — she says Hun Sen’s government still wants “the appearance of having popular legitimacy for the government by having people vote for them.”
The cost of conservation
Even before the election loomed, government enforcement of the farming ban was erratic.
Following the announcement in 2011, authorities installed concrete posts to mark the conservation zones but took no further action. Then, on Nov. 27, 2021, Hun Sen posted a Facebook audio message ordering a crackdown on what he called illegal land encroachment in Tonle Sap’s flooded forest. “Regardless of the status, all that land must be reclaimed and subject for later reforestation,” Hun Sen said.
Urgent action was needed, says Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia program director for the U.S.-based Stimson Center. Years of drought disrupted the lake’s natural flow. The COVID-19 pandemic drove Cambodians who had migrated to cities and neighboring countries to return home, putting even greater pressure on the lake’s declining fisheries.
“The writing’s on the wall for the Cambodian government — that they have to conserve this resource, they have to conserve Tonle Sap, and they put it at the top of their national priority,” Eyler says.
But he says the government’s conservation efforts have happened faster than Cambodians can adapt, and with little support for those affected, hitting subsistence farmers hardest.
“It’s easy to paint the locals as the scapegoats when, you know, the day before they thought they were doing something absolutely acceptable,” Eyler says.
Lun Yi, a 63-year-old widow in the same village as Keo, had a small plot of land in the conservation zone where she grew rice to feed herself and her family. The farming ban, on paper, allows for subsistence farming, but in practice authorities have stopped farmers like Yi.
“[The government] did not give me any compensation,” she says.
She has also had to resort to physically demanding day labor.
“I am sick and old, but I keep going. If I do not go to work, there will be no money for food,” she says.
Saving Tonle Sap
Tonle Sap is often called the heart of the Mekong River because of its unique flood pulse.
“The lake’s health is probably the most important thing to maintain throughout the entirety of the Mekong Basin,” Eyler says.
During the dry season, usually from around November to May, the lake pumps fresh water into the Mekong River, accounting for around 20-50% of the river’s flow into Vietnam. In the wet season, Himalayan snowmelt and monsoon rains reverse the flow of the tributary that connects the river and the lake. The lake swells up to six times its dry-season size, flooding forests around the perimeter for about half the year.
Fish from the Mekong find food and lay their eggs in the flooded forest, making Tonle Sap one of the biggest freshwater fisheries on Earth.
As the floodwater recedes in the dry season, it leaves behind fertile soil for growing crops. Rice farmers have adapted to this flood pulse over centuries.
But when farmers grow more than one crop of rice per year, they need fertilizers and pesticides, Eyler says. This pollutes the lake’s water and harms fish.
Rice farming is also water intensive. Growing multiple crops of rice requires farmers to store water that would otherwise drain out of Tonle Sap Lake and into the Mekong Delta. This means there’s less water for downstream use in both Cambodia and Vietnam.
These are some of the reasons cited for the crackdown in Zone 3.
“When the water is low, it is an opportunity for the people to [use the land to] farm,” says Sok Touch, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and architect of the crackdown. “The flooded forest in the area has been cleared. When cleared, it created a bigger issue such as the loss of food for fish.”
But subsistence farmers like Yi and Keo have little impact on the health of Tonle Sap, compared to other environmental stressors on the lake like industrial pollution, overfishing and climate change, says Laurie Parsons, a senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. The government and industry have competing economic interests on the lake and waterways, which contradict their own conservation efforts. Sand dredgers continue to have unfettered access to the water, and dams upstream in Laos and China restrict water and sediment flow to the Mekong Delta.
Sok Touch describes a future where the Cambodian government has greater control over the economic possibilities of the water. “We have to maintain water resources. Because we can build hydro dams, but why not build water reservoirs to maintain our water resource?”
“If dams continue to be built, and the climate change predictions happen, and sand mining continues,” Eyler says, “all the efforts to conserve the resources are going to be for naught.”
Rice farmers left behind
Today, farmers around the lake are confronted with not just one crisis but several: unpredictable crop prices, skyrocketing costs of fertilizer and pesticides, and extreme weather. Now, these land evictions are pushing farmers to the edge.
“The ones who can be most affected are people that don’t have any legal claim to the land,” says Alice Beban. “So we’re talking about the poorest farmers that haven’t got papers. They’re like the ones who are often at the bottom of the heap.”
The Cambodian government doesn’t see farmers like Keo and Yi as the rightful owners of their land. Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment, says no one is allowed to buy or sell land in Zone 3, so it doesn’t provide compensation for any evictions.
“Having the property or control of land in the conservation zone is already illegal,” Pheaktra says.
The lack of formal land titles makes it easier to remove farmers from the conservation areas. For the government, this is also an opportunity to encourage a shift away from subsistence farming and toward industrial, commercial farming.
Yang Saing Koma, secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, says having fewer farmers will diversify the economy. He says people will leave farming, find jobs in the cities, and smaller plots of land can then be consolidated into larger farms.
“My responsibility is to help the farmer … who wants to be successful in this kind of market competition,” he says.
But in practice, this isn’t what happens, Beban says. “The problem with that, in Cambodia, is that you don’t have the space for upwardly mobile jobs that are supposed to be being created in urban areas.”
For farmers like Vorn Keo and Lun Yi, the loss of their land is the loss of their livelihood and rice supply for the year. This is especially true for Yi, who has no safety net to fall back on.
When asked how she would feel if she got her land back, she says, “I feel that if they give [the land] back, I would be so happy.”
Like thousands of farmers who have had their land confiscated, the fate of Yi’s farm in the conservation zone rests on the government’s decisions in the coming months. In the meantime, she says she’s willing to take the risk and defy the farming ban in the brief window of opportunity between now and the July election — even if it means doing so for the last time.
Banner image: It’s early morning and Lun Yi, 63, is getting ready for work. Since losing her rice farm, she takes jobs around the village to cover her food costs. She prepares lunch and feeds her chickens before heading off to do yard work for a retired couple in her village. Image by Britney Dennison.
This story was produced in partnership with fellows of the Global Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, Writing, and Media. Mongabay retained full editorial control of the published article.
Additional support from the Global Reporting Program: Andrea Crossan, Britney Dennison, Sineat Yon, Ly Vouch Long, Muyhong Chan, and Chihong Chann.