"When I was in our patrol boat, I got threats over the radio," says Krak Heus, a fisherman in a rural area of Cambodia. "They threatened me, but I keep patrolling."
For years, fishermen like Heus eked a living out of a large lake that stretched for miles. There should have been plenty of fish for the 22 villages that depended on the lake, but often Heus would only get a few pounds of fish a day—sometimes enough to feed his five children, but not enough to sell.
Heus and his neighbors knew that outside groups were fishing illegally—stunning fish with electrical currents or casting fine nets that caught young fish that would have replenished the lake. "In one night, they would get over a hundred pounds of fish," Heus says. The villagers just didn't have a way to stop the trespassers.
More Fish to Sell, More Money for School
Then a program supported by Catholic Relief Services gave villagers what they asked for: an engine for a patrol boat. CRS' local partner, Srer Khmer, told them about their legal rights to the community-owned lake. Helped by the partner, a group of about two dozen men banded together and started patrolling the lake several times a week. They enforce licenses, cut and confiscate long nets, and prevent overfishing.
Heus now catches more than 20 pounds of fish a day from the lake, and sells some of it. He uses the money for food and clothes, and to keep his children in school. "If the lake were not protected, my children might not be able to continue studying," he says. "Before this project, our living condition was poor. The income from selling fish helps a lot."
The patrollers aren't popular with outsiders who want to take all the fish. But despite threats, Heus and other men go out several times a week to protect their lake so it can feed the 2,000 villagers who depend on it. "We need to struggle, we need to be committed," says Heus. "We are the ones protecting the lake."
Teaching Villagers Their Rights
Throughout Cambodia, villagers like Heus get fish from nearby lakes, mushrooms from forests, and shrimp from coastal areas. They often have legal rights to these community-owned areas, but aren't aware of it. When big companies move in to cut down trees or to fish, they don't know what to do.
CRS works with local governments to make sure villagers know their rights and know how to preserve the areas. For example, CRS asks Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to visit villages and teach residents about things like land laws, deforestation and illegal fishing practices.
CRS programs also help villagers make the most of the natural resources they have. "People don't have to rely on only one crop," says Pou Sovann, director of Srer Khmer. "They can have rice, fruit trees, livestock." Srer Khmer trains farmers, teaching them how to grow vegetables and rice in the dry season or how to care for animals.
Srer Khmer makes sure farmers from isolated villages know what a fair market price for their produce is. "Before, when they would go to the market, they had no bargaining power," says Sovann. "Sellers offered a low price and they had to sell, or cart all the vegetables back home."
Growing More Food
Before joining the CRS project, 42-year-old Houen Pen and her husband struggled to feed their family. Then she learned new growing methods and shared the use of a water pump CRS helped the community buy. "Now we have more cucumbers, gourds, beans and eggplants," she says. With enough to sell, she carries the produce on her bike to the market, where she makes $2.50-$3 per day—a good profit in Cambodia's rural villages.
The project also gave Pen a small number of chickens to start with, and taught her how to care for them. "The trainer showed me how to create a chicken coop," Pen remembers. With careful tending, her flock has grown; now she has almost 50.
Khorn Och, a single mother, began collecting mango seeds from trees and grows saplings to sell. "I never thought of these ideas before, but after the training, I started," she says.
By protecting their lands and lakes, and making the most of them, Cambodian villagers are beating hunger. "Farmers often have a food shortage," says Sovann. "What makes me happy is when I visit the farms and they have enough food."
Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.