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Life, Fish and Mangroves

Melissa Marschke


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I have always found a way to earn money, and as my children got older I have been able to help my village, too. I fished with my father, went into the army, became a dynamite fisher and charcoal kiln owner, returned to dive fishing, started selling goods from home, began work with the village resource management committee and recently was elected onto the commune council.
In general, everything is going well. But I am not sure if the village is such a good place for my children. There are fewer fish, everything is expensive since goods are brought in by boat, and it is hard to protect and manage our natural resources as more people become interested in them. Some people are starting to leave the village, which makes us all think about our future.
—Excerpts from an interview with Wayne Som Sak, Cambodia, 2010

1Wayne Som Sak’s reflection upon his livelihood speaks volumes about the changes taking place in the Cambodian countryside. Wayne lives in a mangrove-estuary village surrounded by trees, water and fish. For many years Wayne has been able to make his living from the natural resources found in this area, through selling fish—caught in various ways—and by producing charcoal, among other things. At a certain point, perhaps a decade ago, Wayne became involved in resource management and other village work and diversified into non-fishing activities. Wayne’s comment about it being “hard” to protect natural resources hints at the tension between balancing resource extraction with resource protection, and the challenges of enforcing rules when outsiders (other fishers, or those interested in coastal resources) come into the area. Meanwhile, fisheries continue to decline. For these reasons, Wayne is hesitant about the future of life in this village, being unsure if his children will be able to sustain themselves or, given the distance from other services, if they will even want to.

2This book is about people, livelihoods and resource governance strategies in coastal Cambodia. I am curious as to how people who are dependent upon the natural resources in and around their village handle the schism between livelihood opportunities that involve some degree of resource extraction and resource governance, particularly in areas where multiple interests compete for the same resources. Cambodia, as a society weighed down by violence and poverty, provides for a particularly illuminating case. Governance reforms due to donor programs and the creation of new policies have set out to improve the condition of the population (Li 2007) through an active democratization process, including emphasizing local resource governance. Although these processes have created formal rules, Cambodia remains a place where formal rules can easily be replaced by the personal and the informal, particularly by those with power (Hughes 2009). This begs the question of how resource governance intersects with rural livelihoods in the Cambodian context.

  • 1 Another reason that I focus on resource governance is that classic notions of resource management (...)

3My focus in this book is on resource governance rather than resource management.1 I do this because resource management focuses on the operational decisions necessary to achieve a specific resource outcome, whereas resource governance incorporates politics, the broader processes and institutions through which a policy agenda is set, along with specific rights and responsibilities (Kooiman et al. 2005; Jentoft and Chuenpagdee 2009). Scholars are interested in how relationships between actors can facilitate or hinder how a society transforms the way natural resources are governed (Crona and Hubacek 2010). Therefore, an emphasis on resource governance enables me to consider how decision-making occurs between state and nonstate actors, and how power is exercised over natural resources more generally (Béné 2005; Sneddon and Fox 2007). In doing so, I can pay careful attention to who profits and loses from such processes (Béné and Neiland 2006), the system of rules that are put into place, and what guides these processes (Rosenau 2003). Since resource governance is broader in scope than resource management, I generally use this term except when writing about specific resource or fisheries management activities.

4I define resources broadly, to acknowledge the utilitarian and the ecosystem functions provided by natural resources. Traditionally, natural resources have been viewed as assets for human satisfaction or utility, being only of value to the extent that they can also be used to create goods and services (Berkes 2010c). Land, forests and fish were seen as commodities for the market, and industrial, colonial and post-colonial development has been predicated to a certain extent on the exploitation of such natural resources (Bernstein 2010). Natural resources, however, encompass far more than this. Natural resources may provide economic opportunities, health benefits and aesthetic pleasures or add to welfare (Béné et al. 2010) and well-being, and contribute toward regulating and sustaining ecosystems (Biermann and Boas 2010). As such, natural resources are more than a commodity for human use, although this component is important, since they also maintain diversity and contribute toward social-ecological sustainability (Berkes 2010c).

  • 2 There is no specific word for “livelihood” in Khmer (like many words used in development discourse (...)
  • 3 Livelihood studies date back to the French concept of genre de vie, although the most widely used (...)

5I ground my analysis of resource governance by focusing on livelihood trajectories in one resource-dependent village.2 Livelihoods are dynamic, complex and often unpredictable, since “goals, preferences, resources and means are constantly reassessed in view of new unstable conditions” (De Haan and Zoomers 2003: 357). A livelihood is more than “having to make a living to get by” (Bebbington 1999: 33), rather encompassing a complex web of activities and interactions.3 Accessing livelihood opportunities, which are governed by social relations, institutions and organizations, with power being an important explanatory variable, remains a challenge (De Haan and Zoomers 2005). Livelihood activities are not neutral: they engender processes of inclusion and exclusion. As such, the classic agrarian questions à la Bernstein (2010) of who owns what, who does what, who gets what and what do they do with it are of central importance to a livelihood analysis. For these reasons, livelihood perspectives offer an important lens for looking at complex governance questions (cf. De Haan and Zoomers 2005 and Scoones 2009 for a succinct overview of livelihood studies and its contributions).

6My research is framed by an interest in three things: (a) how livelihoods shift, evolve and adapt in villages where numerous actors are vying for access to the same natural resources; (b) the role of decentralized resource governance in situations with high levels of poverty, resource-dependence and social-ecological change; and (c) the potential for other forms of resource governance in such situations. To develop my analysis I pay careful attention to coastal livelihoods and resource-related challenges over a twelve-year period, including how people actually try to achieve specific outcomes. Several texts have been helpful in enabling me to advance my arguments. Key to my thinking has been the work of Brent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter, who points to the need for deeply grounded, context-specific research. In the area of decentralized resource governance, research by Christopher Béné, Fikret Berkes, Elinor Ostrom and Krister Andersson have been particularly insightful and informative.

7First, in terms of paying attention to how livelihoods shift, evolve and adapt, the case material is thick both in description and in attention to the nuances found within the social-ecological system of southwestern Cambodia. I aim to identify the basic connections and general patterns that are characteristic of the context I am researching. As Nietzsche notes, “one should not wish to divest existence of its rich ambiguity” (emphasis in original, as cited in Flyvbjerg 2001: 84). I explore the everchanging details of everyday life in one resource-dependent coastal village and the fishing grounds that this village, along with a handful of other villages, use. This enables me to examine struggles over access to natural resources (Scoones 2009). I then reflect upon how local resource governance processes have been formed in light of the multiple influences and agendas of internal and external actors found within the Cambodian context. Flyvbjerg (2001) notes that a thick and hard-to-summarize narrative may be a sign that the study has uncovered a rich problematic; such thinking has helped me to persevere in exploring and analyzing this rather complicated, dynamic story.

8Second, since I am interested in local resource governance, I pay attention to decentralization reforms and processes. Decentralization, as a policy project, implies the changing of power structures and relations (Raik et al. 2008), and may be more ideologically driven than is practical in some contexts (Gellman 2010). Decentralized resource governance projects are “simultaneously political-economic projects” and vice versa, and the interaction between politics and ecology requires careful attention (Harvey 1993: 25). Without an in-depth understanding of power relations, in terms of which actors hold power, to whom actors are accountable, etc., it is difficult to understand what resource governance may actually mean at the village level (Agrawal and Ribot 1999). This is why it is important to pay explicit attention to relationships and, where possible, power dynamics between the state and subnational units, civil society and the private sector. Moreover, it is important to investigate the relations that have been, or are being, established within the natural resources sector and those institutional actors who emerge in newly created local resource governance institutions (Béné et al. 2009). In particular, how is policy supporting decentralized resource governance created, enacted (or not) and then, sometimes, manipulated in practice? The creative use of policies may be rather telling in terms of understanding how policies are understood and/or privileged by various actors.

9Third, I consider what else might compliment local resource governance to mitigate against ecological disturbance, vulnerability and unsustainable path dependencies. Sustainability will not be realized unless current resource management regimes undergo a transition toward more adaptive and integrated resource governance (Pahl-Wostl 2009). For these reasons, governance scholars are exploring the need for multi-level institutions and partnerships among state and nonstate actors (Kooiman et al. 2005). While this includes an emphasis on local governance, scholars call attention to governance at multiple levels (Ostrom and Anderson 2008). This concept has two basic characteristics: interdependence across governance levels and showing the interaction among different actors (Berkes 2010c). However, there are numerous challenges with multi-level arrangements including accountability concerns, coordination issues, and being relevant in an ever-changing world (Cash et al. 2006; Biermann and Boas 2010). For these reasons, I am interested to explore the potential for such arrangements in a place where decentralization processes are only just emerging and power has typically remained at the centre.


10I situate my study in Cambodia, a country that is characterized by struggle and change. Cambodia has been subject to six different ideological regimes, including several forms of socialism, since independence from France in 1953 (Slocomb 2006). Violence has plagued Cambodia, in particular during the Cold War era, and governance was shaky for decades (Slocomb 2002). The genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979) resulted in a drastically reduced civil service (Slocomb 2002) and a population reeling from an intense trauma: the Khmer Rouge resistance army only defected to the government in 1999 after Pol Pot’s death. Nonetheless, with the lifting of international embargos on credit and trade for Cambodia and Vietnam, liberal economic reforms were introduced in the late 1980s. This period also marked the beginning of political reforms: Cambodia signed the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 and a multi-party political system was introduced in 1993. These extensive economic and political reforms are in line with neoliberal prescriptions tied to a world view and theories about the economy, state or education that are Western-centric (Slocomb 2006; Gellman 2010).

  • 4 For a nuanced reflection on how Khmer culture is evolving, see the special 2006 issue of The Journ (...)

11Nonetheless, the “means of governing” Cambodia has consistently included elements of nepotism, corruption and suppressing opposition (Thion 1986; Slocomb 2006). This is an example of a state where formal rules can be replaced by informal rules. Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1984, and remains popular with the business elite and senior bureaucrats, along with people in the countryside. In a sense, citizens see Hun Sen as a fait accompli rather than an elected and responsive leader (Chandler 2010). Such acceptance speaks to aspects of Khmer culture, which include elements of deference, obedience to authority and patronage networks (Ebihara 1968; Marston 1997; Legerwood and Vijhen 2002).4 The elite do have far greater material resources than most; at the same time, they require popular consent to legitimize their rule that awards a kind of residual power to the poor (Hughes and Ojendal 2006). Gift-giving, as seen in the distribution of rice, fish sauce, t-shirts and scarves (kramas) during election campaigns, speaks to this. At the same time, Khmer culture is evolving and adapting in part linked to a large demographic born post-1979 and the infusion of development aid since the early 1990s. Thus, patronage structures overlap with evolving political and institutional development in a context of social, economic and political change that is sponsored by powerful internal and external actors (Hughes and Ojendal 2006).

12There is no doubt that Cambodia is a complex place. On the one hand, there is corruption, nepotism, authoritarian one-party rule, a culture of impunity, ecological degradation, poor social services and a widening gap between the rich and the poor (Chandler 2010). Political consolidation has been strengthened by governance reforms emphasizing decentralization, with the ruling party having a firm grasp on rural politics (Hughes 2008). The prime minister is portrayed as an authoritarian strongman, strengthening his support through strategic interfamily networks (Slocomb 2006), and Cambodia’s political elite has generated much of its wealth through seizing public assets, particularly forest and land resources (Un and So 2009). On the other hand, infrastructure has greatly improved, a large number of primary and junior high schools have been built, political stability has been conducive to development and investment and tourist dollars continue to flow. Multi-party elections have been held both nationally and locally, and the introduction of local-level democratic elections is seen as a major gain for democratization in Cambodia (Turner 2006). Finally, Cambodia is a full member of the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the World Trade Organization. These changes have brought benefits, and Cambodia is now a safer, more secure place than it has been for decades.


13The area where my field research takes place (see Figure 1 in the Prologue)—southwestern, coastal Cambodia—was, until recently, referred to as Cambodia’s “wild west.” The area served as a frontier for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Resource rights were ill defined and state regulations were weak, an attractive combination for those who had lost their land during the Khmer Rouge era or wanted to try their luck in another part of the country. This area was isolated from other parts of Cambodia and remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold until well into the 1990s, two factors that contributed toward the variety of resource-related livelihood activities (logging, charcoal production, working on shrimp farms) available to those migrating into the area. The 1998 election period was particularly concentrated in terms of logging activities, which led to a dramatic decline of mangrove trees in the mangrove-estuary villages on which this research focuses. Intense deforestation over a short period of time, coupled with an increase in charcoal production, was wreaking visible havoc on the ecosystem.

14By 2000 the state was slowly permeating this frontier-like area; in doing so, most illegal resource extraction activities became too risky, particularly for villagers, and shrimp farming collapsed due to poor site selection (Mastaller 1999). Some households left the area; those that stayed were forced to rely mainly on the crab fishery or to diversify into non-resource-based livelihoods. At this point in time (2000), southwestern Cambodia was seen as holding significant potential in terms of local resource governance (for fisheries, forestry and protected areas), and this is when I first learned of the resource governance experiment that I carefully examine in this book.

15Fast-forward a decade later (2010), forms of village-run resource governance do exist, in addition to many national policies supporting this governance approach. At the same time, this area has continued to serve as a frontier for business interests, particularly for well-connected entrepreneurs. My conclusions are drawn from the particularities of this case.


  • 5 The main sources for this research investigation were interviews, workshops, surveys, participant (...)

16My writing moves back and forth between examining the emergence of local resource governance in Cambodia and exploring how local resource governance processes intersect with other forces in a specific place. I have been a frequent visitor to various government ministries in Phnom Penh, and privy to a series of donor meetings and policy reform workshops. I have also been a frequent visitor to several remote mangrove-estuary fishing villages since the late 1990s. This study became longitudinal, in part because every time I returned to the area something had shifted. Although these were often minor events—the chance to sell mushrooms growing on mangrove trees to a Korean buyer or the appointment of a new village chief—these shifts impact and help to shape rural livelihoods and the choices made around levels of resource extraction. I realized that only through consistent conversations with a handful of households over a period of time would I begin to understand the complexities of daily life and the potential for resource governance in this context. Thus, multiple discussions over the years, combined with further reflections and readings, have enabled me to begin to untangle some of the intricacies of rural life in southwestern Cambodia.5

17I begin in Chapter 1 with an exploration into why decentralization became privileged as the way to govern natural resources in and around villages, and then explore how this idea is playing out in Cambodia. In Chapter 2, I focus on fisheries resources, reflecting on Cambodia’s current fisheries governance challenges and past fisheries governance practices. In Chapter 3, I describe life in one coastal village, tracking the stresses that people endure in relation to livelihood extraction opportunities and emerging resource governance policies over a twelve-year period (1998–2010). Chapter 4 is where I begin my analysis of resource governance implementation, again spanning twelve years, and reflect upon the local-level strategies that villagers engage to deal with various resource challenges. I also explore the issues that villagers are not able to address. In Chapter 5, I move across administrative units to examine resource governance challenges within local fishing grounds. Here I pay attention to when policy is implemented, creatively adapted or ignored. In Chapter 6, I interrogate failures in resource governance that occur in and around the village, within local fishing grounds and at the national level. I conclude by reflecting on the broader resource governance issues that are brought up from this extensive field investigation and consider the desirability of this particular situation.


1 Another reason that I focus on resource governance is that classic notions of resource management are associated with, among other things, a separation of humans from the environment, the commodification of nature, a division between resource users and managers, and the rise of a managerial class (cf. Berkes 2010a for a careful review). Resource management has implications of the “domination of nature, efficiency, social and ecological simplification, and expert-knows-best, command-and-control approaches” (Berkes 2010a: 33). Moreover, to my mind, management and governance are not synonymous. Whereas management involves operational decisions to achieve specific resource outcomes, governance refers to the broader processes and institutions through which societies make decisions that affect the environment. For these reasons, resource and environmental management continues to be reframed, repositioned and connected with governance (Armitage 2010 pers. communication).

2 There is no specific word for “livelihood” in Khmer (like many words used in development discourse such as “sustainable development” or “decentralization”), although this concept is often translated as tweeka, to work. This is a narrow interpretation, only focusing on money-making activities. A more useful expression is ka chenh chem chiavit (life activities and living).

3 Livelihood studies date back to the French concept of genre de vie, although the most widely used livelihood framework points to a series of capitals—natural, social, physical, financial, among others—interacting via institutions to produce specific livelihood outcomes (De Haan and Zoomers 2005). This framework has since been adopted by many development practitioners, although it has lost traction in recent years because of the complexity of implementing this framework (Scoones 2009).

4 For a nuanced reflection on how Khmer culture is evolving, see the special 2006 issue of The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.

5 The main sources for this research investigation were interviews, workshops, surveys, participant observation and talking with key informants over the past twelve years. My field research has generally taken place with a research assistant, often a university student or young graduate, or with members of the Participatory Management of Coastal Resources (PMCR) team, the Canadian-funded, intergovernmental research team led by the Ministry of Environment (cf. PMCR 2008 for more details on their work). For more details on the research methods, see Marschke 1999; Marschke 2005; Marschke and Sincliar 2009; Marschke, forthcoming.

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