Phen Sophany cuts the motor as the boat nears the centre of a mangrove-lined estuary in Koh Kong province, near the isolated fishing village of Koh Sralav.
“This is where the island used to be,” the 38-year-old member of environmental activist group Mother Nature says, the village visible in the distance.
“It was about 100 metres by 50 metres, named Koh Kabung – it looked like a crocodile egg, filled with mangroves and crabs. Then they took the sand around it, and when the water came in, it was gone.”
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Three members of Mother Nature are set to face to court today on charges stemming from their campaign aimed at stopping dredging in Koh Kong’s estuaries.
The trio – San Mala, 24, Try Sovikea, 26, and Sim Somnang, 29 – were put in pre-trial detention in August last year and charged with “threatening to destroy property followed by an order” under Article 424 of the Penal Code, after a complaint by dredging company Direct Access, which demanded $100,000 in compensation. They face a maximum of two years in prison.
The charges relate to alleged threats to destroy equipment made by the trio during a three-day protest in late July, during which activists and community members boarded the dredging ships.
There’s been no suggestion equipment was subsequently damaged, and the three men deny the charges, which a recent legal analysis by the Cambodia Centre for Human Rights slammed as lacking “any substantive evidence”.
The group’s co-founder, Spanish national Alex Gonzalez Davidson, who was deported after the government refused to extend his visa, has been charged in absentia as an accomplice.
Villagers – some of whom plan to protest outside today’s hearing at Koh Kong Provincial Court – say almost eight years of dredging has devastated the stocks of fish, crabs and snails that villages like Koh Sralav rely on for food and trading.
Though residents say they have experienced a reprieve over the past two months, Davidson said via email that Mother Nature activists had spotted active dredging a little over a week ago.
However, according to a local sand-dredging worker, operations have stopped as licences await renewal. The Ministry for Mines and Energy officials would not comment yesterday on the status of dredging in the area.
On Saturday, more than a dozen seemingly inactive barges lurked a few kilometres from town.
Anchored alongside a broken shoreline, where mining has caused the lines of mangroves to collapse into the water, the vessels, including seven with cranes, serve as a daily reminder of a bleak future.
As crabbers pull up largely empty traps along a line that stretches for kilometres, skeleton crews on the dredgers keep the machines in working order.
“We don’t know what else to do; we protest and the problem gets worse, they put people in jail,” says 32-year-old fisherman You Samon, looking out onto the water from the balcony outside his stilted wooden shack.
“I’m afraid for when the sand dredgers come back; no one will help us dismiss them, because they put the activists in jail.”
According to a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the destruction of fish habitats by dredging in the Tatai River, which flows into the estuaries surrounding Koh Sralav, has reduced catches by between 70 and 90 per cent.
Fisherman Som Chhorn, 45, is usually out on the water at 7am with his wife, while his 16-year-old daughter hunts for snails. Getting older, he returns now in the mid to late afternoon.
“I fish until my energy gives out,” Chhorn, clad in an old football jersey, says over lunch in his house along the water in Koh Sralav.
Though the demands remain the same, the return is getting much worse. Just four years ago, the family would pull in a 20 kilogram catch after a day of fishing. Now a good day sees Chhorn bring back just 5 kilograms.
“Before, I spent less on petrol and caught a lot of fish; now I spend a lot on petrol and catch less fish,” he says.
Finishing his lunch as his brother Som Sokhoeun, who spotlights crabs at night, tends to his young child, Chhorn says many villagers without family commitments are heading elsewhere in search of work.
“If they are endowed with energy, strong with power for labour, then they go to Thailand . . . or to work in garment factories,” he says.
Nearby, in an open-front wooden store, 28-year-old You Samith stands next to sacks of sea snails and buckets of fish and eels, and he shows off some of his best stone crabs.
Four years ago, the young father traded in his fishing kit for scales and became a broker. It’s a line of work he considers far more lucrative, though far from immune to the downturn.
“In the past, I used to buy about 10,000 baht [about $283] of produce a day, now it’s about 1,000 baht,” he says, adding that he knew at least 30 to 40 people personally who had left for Thailand.
“The salaries in Thailand aren’t great, but they’re stable.”
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One of the Koh Sralav villagers currently mulling a career change is Hie Nary.
Her small wooden boat floating in the shadow of the dredging cranes, the 54-year-old widow re-baits the two-kilometre line of crab traps that her son pulls from the water.
Though Nary usually re-baits after a catch, the snares are largely empty. “Four years ago, we would get about 20 kilograms [a day],” Nary said. “Today, we have about 3 kilograms.”
Like many Koh Sralav families, Nary moved to the province seeking a new life, and money, in fishing, arriving in 1994 from Prey Veng province.
She now shares another thing in common with many of her fellow villagers: debt.
“I am thinking of selling my boat and going to work as a garment worker,” says Nary, whose husband, among those who protested with Mother Nature, died in January.
“I am in debt about $3,000; I took out loans to buy the boat and equipment. Sometimes I need new traps because the dredgers break them with their anchors.”
Fellow villager Khieu Khit, 74, says most of the area’s fishermen are in debt.
“Everyone except me, because they won’t give me a loan,” he says.
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The Mother Nature protests targeted two companies dredging the estuaries: Rainbow International and Direct Access.
In 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a ban on sand exports, citing the environmental impact on the country’s coastlines, estuaries and rivers.
In February, the head of the Ministry of Mines and Energy’s licensing bureau showed the Post old research that showed impact would be “minimal”.
However, the ministry has yet to release promised environmental impact assessments for the companies.
According to a 2010 report by Global Witness, sand extracted from Koh Kong province in a single year was valued at $248 million.
The primary market was Singapore’s massive land reclamation projects.
Government data from May revealed that 70 dredging licences had been granted since March 2015, when the government announced another effort to reform the sector. According to the figures, the state made $4.1 million from dredging last year, and $1.6 million in 2016’s first quarter.
Sitting by his isolated shack on a sandbank close to the dormant dredging barges, 45-year-old Chuob Pov said he works as a mechanic on the dredging machines, but has been out of a job during the hiatus, which he said was due to companies vying for new licenses.
He says that he’s well aware of the protests against the dredging and the practice’s destructive impact.
Asked for his opinion, he pauses.
“The community is angry at us, but we are just workers,” Pov says.“People should be angry with the employers.”
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Though the old have memories of better times, the young in Koh Sralav have few options.
The village’s school stops at grade 9. The nearest high school is a two-hour boat ride away in Koh Kong town, and older students must relocate.
Lim Sophorn, who began teaching grade 9 this year, hopes 70 to 80 per cent of his class of 10 will pass the exam and continue with their studies. Most, he says, want to be civil servants, teachers especially, meaning they can come back and work a stable job in the community.
Though sand dredging is not in the curriculum, it invariably comes up in class, the size of which is sometimes influenced by its consequences.
“When the fishing drops off, some students drop out to help their parents,” Sophorn says.
Choeum Nary, 26, who left school early to work for his family, says he, too, is considering moving to look for work as a garment or construction worker.
“The sand dredging is destroying the livelihood of this community,” Nary says. “I attended many protests around the area. If they hold another protest, I will go again, I am not afraid. I want to stop the dredging.”