BOENG TOUK, Kampot — A group of Kampot fishers constructed a shack for a studio, enlisted 10 local youths to study broadcasting, and planned to disseminate weather forecasts, community news, and messages to protect the environment.
But they’ve been given the runaround between various levels of government for over a year, and now an NGO’s grant to set up their radio station has expired.
For years, the community has been battling a satellite city seafilling development that they say is devastating their fisheries, and say a local radio station could keep the community strong. But last week, the local commune chief told VOD she could not approve the project as the company may want to expand onto the land on which their would-be studio stands.
The area is a mess of mud in late August, the ground sodden with rain on landfill that stretches far into the sea.
Ev Chhin says his Kep Thmey fishing community is a formal entity approved by the Fisheries Administration since 2015, and had rights to fish in 800 hectares of sea. But 200 hectares of that area has been privatized for landfilling.
Chhin, the fishing community’s president, says the development has passed through several hands, but is now being led by developer IGB. A government document from December 2020 reveals that IGB will get 80 hectares, or 40 percent, of the land to develop as it wishes, and the remaining 120 hectares will be used “for the development of investment projects to serve the tourism sector in accordance with the principles of the Royal Government.”
Locals have protested against the development, but it was no use, he says. “The company has more money and power. We couldn’t win. One of our community members was arrested at the time. We don’t want to risk our life.”
The landfill is already extensive, and has caused major disruptions to fishing. The catch in shallow waters has all but disappeared, and 50 to 80 percent of about 100 former fishing families in the community have had to give up the trade, turning to construction and factory work instead.
“The project impacts us and our rice pot, because we live dependent on the biology in the ocean,” Chhin says.
In 2019, the community began its radio project, building a small shack on what used to be the shore but is now the entrance to the IGB landfill. Members traveled to Pursat and other provinces to study other local radio projects.
“We want to protect the ecosystem around here, like the mangroves, crabs,” Chhin says. “The radio is one project that can help.”
Most local residents are fishers, and the radio would give them weather reports, local news and information about organizing events, he says.
Nou Visal, a third-year engineering student in Kampot city, says he is one of 10 youth volunteers who would have operated the station’s programming. He has traveled to Phnom Penh to study broadcasting.
“We’ve already designated our duties,” Visal says. “We’ll take turns. We have four youths who will be working on editing, and some will do writing.” The volunteers would present the content on-air.
Seung Sreyneath, a second-year information technology student in Kampot, says she was set to be an editor.
“We’ve spent so much time making this happen. But it’s ending up just wasting my efforts,” Sreyneath says.
The government has been sensitive to allowing the setting up of new radio stations. The dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party tried for years to set up a radio station but were blocked by officials. The government also targeted and silenced radio broadcasts, like VOD and Voice of America, as part of a 2017 crackdown on independent news sources.
Chhin, the community’s president, says community members tried to get approval from authorities for over a year, but they could make no headway.
“The commune chief requested we submit to the province first. But when I went to the province, they told us to get permission from the commune before coming to the top. I’m not really sure how they work,” Chhin says.
At the Boeng Touk commune hall, about 2 km from the radio shack, local officials are asked about the community’s difficulty making progress.
Lay Tounh, an advisory council member, says the community just hasn’t produced the right documents.
“They need to go to the Ministry of Information first so we can decide later. I know that administrative work is from the bottom to the top. But in some cases it’s not like that. For example, if a party wants to participate in commune elections, they need to ask the province first, not the commune. A radio station is like that,” Tounh says.
Commune chief Moul Sokhom, who also eventually talks to reporters, says the problem is the land. The site of the radio studio is on an unresolved boundary between the landfill and community land, she says.
“We still haven’t identified which part is the community’s and IGB’s,” Sokhom says.
The commune can’t make that call, she says.
“We’re waiting for everything to be prepared,” she says, “because I don’t know if the company wants to expand more. So the community may need to move.”
IGB could not be reached through contacts listed with the Commerce Ministry.
Support Runs Out
Meng Suon, project coordinator for Building Community Voices, says the NGO’s project with the community ended in December. It helped prepare various documents for the radio station since 2018, but could never get signatures from the commune or district, Suon says.
“Now the community doesn’t have any organization to help anymore,” Suon says. “This is a bit hard for the community when they can’t proceed with this project without any activities. And our organization doesn’t have a project grant to continue there anymore.”
The fishing community’s vice president, Kheav Savaong, says he feels the community had done everything right.
“This is state land but the community controls it. We had everything before going to register,” Savaong says of required documentation.
He adds that people have been struggling due to the development. They lost a space to dock their boats, and seagrass in shallow waters is gone, and shrimp and crabs with it.
“The families who fish for their daily living, looking for shrimp, seaweed, crabs and small fish around the community areas … the community has decreased 50 to 80 percent in fishing families.”
Next to the would-be studio, the community is also building a larger hall, which they work on piece by piece whenever they can collect some money. Chhin, the community’s president, says the radio station was meant to only be the start to pick up the ailing fishing community.
“We have almost everything to start the radio station,” he says. “We were building a shop to attract tourists to come here. It’s next to the sea so they could relax. It was part of the benefits for our community. But recently, the support from NGOs has ended. Now we are stuck in one place.”