Saving the Sesan River

The landscape of Sesan River and indigenous community forest in Pang Ket village, Taveng Leu commune, Ratanakiri province Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Saving the Sesan River

A river protector goes against the flow in Cambodia

On a recent trip to northern Cambodia, I met a man on a red motorbike, toiling along a muddy road in the rain. He was gathering villagers for a meeting at his home in Pang Ket village. His name is Piev Bern, and he’s a 30-year-old indigenous Prov person, and a member of a volunteer team that protects the Sesan River that flows near his home.

Pang Ket is in the Taveng Leu commune in Cambodia’s northern Ratanakiri province. Bern’s neighbors are meeting to discuss the depletion of fish resources in the Sesan, one of the largest tributaries of the Mekong River. The Sesan runs from the central highlands of Vietnam and meanders west across Cambodia’s Ratanakiri and Steung Treng provinces.

Bern says villagers put a lot of effort into protecting the Sesan River from destructive and illegal fishing practices, but they are concerned about hydroelectric dam developments that they believe are destroying fish habitats, and obstructing fish migration.

“The river is very important for my life and others. The river is our food bank, it supports our livelihoods,” Bern says.

Connecting Life and Love

The indigenous villagers here subsist on the rice they grow, the fish they catch, and the vegetables they cultivate along the river banks and gather in the forest.

The landscape of Sesan River and indigenous community forest in Pang Ket village, Taveng Leu commune, Ratanakiri province. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Bern has a strong connection with the Sesan River; the river is his home and his everything - from happiness to sadness.

When Bern was 5 years old, he went fishing with his parents. He remembers his father always used a small net to fish in the river for less than 10 minutes and he could catch around six or seven kilos (about 15 pounds) of fish.

“’The river is your cooking pot, you must protect it,’” Bern says his father told him.

When Bern first fell in love with his wife, Deurv Loum, it was also on the Sesan River. At that time, he fished while his wife tended her farm along the river bank.

Threat of flood

Hearing about Bern’s happy memories, I feel very emotional about the beautiful life of the people along the river. At the same time, it is sad to hear the grim story of the severe flood in 2005, which hit many communities along the Sesan River. The flood was a result of waters suddenly released by the Yali dam in Vietnam, which lies 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) upstream from Cambodia’s border. Bern says that following a period of heavy rain, the dam released the water without any notification to citizens living downstream along the Sesan River.

When the flood hit his village; Bern was sleeping at midnight, but woke up to see the water rising up to the level of his bed.

“I was very worried about my family, especially my seven-month-old child,” Bern says. “I thought my whole family would die or be swept away in this severe flood, so I rushed to bring my family to a safe area.”

Piev Bern and his family at his home in Pang Ket village, Taveng Leu commune of Ratanakiri. Photos: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Bern says some houses and villagers’ properties such as boats, animals, rice, and other crops were destroyed and washed away in the river. He said he lost two big pigs and 50 chickens.

“My life is worse than my parent’s time. I live in fear that one day I might be washed away by flood caused by the water release from Yali dam.”

Establishing a community fishery

Bern’s commune established a community fishery in 2012 to protect fish in the spawning grounds along the river. A community fishery is a community-based organization established to sustainably manage fisheries resources in order to protect the ecosystem and secure the livelihoods of people living along the river.

In 2013 Oxfam’s partner-Save Cambodia Wildlife (SCW) started to work with the villagers in Bern’s community. It helped train a patrolling team on natural resources management, fishery laws, and human rights, as well as the rights of indigenous people in conserving and protecting their resources.

“Since the community fishery was established, we noticed that the illegal fishing activities have decreased significantly,” Bern says. “Community members committed to stop illegal fishing and protect the fish habitats and spawning areas because they are aware of the consequences of illegal fishing and the importance of river resources.”

The villagers and Bern want their situation to change: They want to restore the natural flow of the river. Bern campaigns against hydropower development projects, and fights against illegal fishing.

Bern’s story really impressed me, particularly his commitment to protecting the Sesan despite all the challenges facing him and his indigenous community. I feel fortunate to learn inspiring stories from people like Bern and others in vulnerable communities like Pang Ket.

“I wish my river and its resources will return to the state it used to be,” Bern says. “I want to see the next generation, the youth, participate in protecting the river and the environment, to sustain it.”