Mean Chuern's story is an unfortunate truth that echoes life on the Tonle Sap. Fishing is the main source of livelihood in the floating communities around the lake and for most, it is the only trade they have ever known. However, with environmental changes taking place, the number of fish within this biosphere has been greatly depleted resulting in many families, like Mean Chuern's, left struggling and without alternatives means of earning a livelihood.
There are changes taking place in the Tonle Sap and Chuern can feel them. Four to five years ago, he could catch 50-70 kilograms of fish per day but today, even a mere five kilograms is hard to come by. There is an unmistakable decrease in the number of fish but he has also noticed that the water seems to have changed. It has become sour and salty and the fish often turn up dead. The possible causes? Pollution and using illegal methods of fishing such as explosives and poison.
Borrowing money through middle men or lenders has become a common practice in these floating villages. With the decrease of fish catch, it has become more difficult to pay back the loans on time. Lenders though, are aware of the plight within their community, making them sympathetic towards those in dire need. Chuern says that no matter how long it may take, both the lender and the borrower know that the debt will be paid off eventually.
The community doesn’t borrow money from the lender, though. The lender provides them with the materials or items they require. Chuern and his family for example, have been borrowing necessities like gas, fishing nets and/or worms. The payback is then made in cash. While it is never easy to repay the amount owed, the dry season (when there are less fish) is especially difficult. Chuern himself confessed to having taken up to six months to repay a lender.
Nevertheless, the lenders continue to lend because it is ultimately a good business for them.
On the upside, there have been no incidents of backlash and/or violence from the part of the lenders when people have not been able to repay their debt. Chuern said that he still has several debts, recent and from previous years, left to pay off.
Chuern's wife also mentioned another form of payment: payback in the form of fish. She recently needed more fishing nets and while she is yet to pay off the debt, the amount will be paid off when she catches fish that equals the amount borrowed (cost of the net, gas, etc. as valued by the lender). As to how she keeps a track of this, "I note them down in a book. When I have caught the amount of fish that is owed, I strike down the item that I have borrowed for such items as gas and worms".
This year was a particularly bad season for the fishermen in the community. "Everyone cried" Chuern said. This has led to seasonal migration among the villagers during fishing season to areas where they think there will be more fish. But with the situation almost similar in all the communities around the lake, all they can do is compete and hope.
Chuern and his wife don't go fishing as often as they used to. It is mostly their son who fishes these days, catching between four to ten kilograms. The common varieties of fish in the area are the Chhlat, Andeng, Rosh and Kranh. The Chhlat fish is worth 1,000 riel per kilogram and there are days when they catch just five kilograms of this kind. With having to repay their lenders as well as the family expenses to consider, they are ultimately left with little to no money by the end of the day.
As a means of sustenance, the family is also trying to rear their own fish (fish farming) although this has proven to be equally expensive. It takes six to seven months for the fish to grow depending on the forage being fed. Taking care of them (i.e. buying the forage) costs money and when money is tight even for their day-to-day expenses, their only option is to go back to the lenders. So while they may be able to grow and sell the fish, in the end there is no profit for them.
This grim economic cycle in the Tonle Sap is further exacerbated by the pricing of the fish in the local markets. Constantly fluctuating, the prices are seemingly dictated by the buyers (it's important to highlight that these 'buyers' are mostly made up of the money lenders and the middlemen in the communities). Chuern heard once from a buyer that the price fluctuates in other markets too, indicating that this is a wide-spread problem. A solution that can perhaps increase the price of the fish is exporting them to the neighboring countries. But as of now, the fish in the region are all processed and sold within Cambodia.
While illegal fishing has always been a problem in the Tonle Sap, the low yield has made it more apparent. This has led to Community Fishery (CFi) members creating an awareness campaign in their village. Chuern and his wife said that they do not resort to using any illegal equipment for fishing but this hasn't stopped many families who are in similar situations to do so. Considering the future, protecting the biosphere and the natural habitat seems unimportant to them when the reality is not having enough money to feed themselves for the day.
If the recent trends in the Tonle Sap are anything to go by, there is a fear that this biosphere will soon disappear bringing an end to the floating communities once and for all. If this were to happen, Chuern is unsure about the future and his family. He had heard about a government plan to provide land for the people but he can't be sure if these are just rumors or the truth. "I don't know how to make a living anymore" said Chuern, who has known fishing as his only means of livelihood.