Moeun Kuon says she refuses to close her fish-breeding farm near the Boeng Samrong lake as she sits at her home in Prek Pnov district’s Samrong commune.
The 47-year-old is one of 200 families set to be evicted by local authorities.
Local authorities said 200 families living in the commune’s Samrong village are to be evicted as City Hall ramps up its lake restoration project.
However, to the 47-year-old and other fish-breeders living here, authorities have not given ample time to vacate nor held a public forum discussing what kind of compensation would be given to residents.
“We did not agree to leave and we will protest City Hall’s decision,” Ms Kuon says. “We are not against the restoration of the lake, but we need time to prepare because we’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars for the breeding farms.”
According to authorities, the 200 families are here illegally encroaching on protected land and the farms were never sanctioned in the first place.
On January 14, Prek Pnov district authorities gave all residents a ten-day eviction notice and told them to remove all farming structures.
“The ten-day deadline is too short of a notice – we can’t sell a hundred tonnes of fish in within the timeframe that has been given,” Ms Kuon says. “We are asking for them to give us one year.”
She says her family has relied on fish-breeding over the past ten years. Her family has also spent more than $10,000 per year to keep their operation going.
“They offered $0.02 per baby fish as compensation and told us that the big fish can still be sold at the market,” Ms Kuon says. “Even if we managed to harvest within ten days, we wouldn’t be able to sell them fast enough.”
“The authorities have to provide suitable compensation if they want us to move out,” she adds. “If they evict me now then I will not have money to pay my debt. If they rush to evict us now we will all die.”
Residents here are also skeptical about what exactly is the motivating factor behind the restoration project, with many suspecting the authorities are aiming to reclaim the 336-hectare lake.
Ms Kuon says residents rely on the lake to make a living and she feels almost certain that City Hall intends to give Boeng Samrong lake to a company for a development project.
“They stopped reclaiming the lake about three to four years ago after hundreds of people started protesting,” she says. “People protested against reclamation because they needed the water for farming and fish-breeding.”
“The authorities say they are restoring the lake, but the lake was sold to a private company,” Ms Kuon says.
Boeng Samrong lake was designated as a conservation area in 2008, but residents in the area began protesting over concerns that they could lose their livelihoods after authorities granted Lay Ngy Co Ltd the right to dredge sand from Tonle Sap river for the reclamation of half of Boeng Samrong lake in 2014.
Sim Sophang, chief of Prek Pnov district administration, denies the allegation made by Boeng Samrong residents, saying: “It has nothing to do with sand dredging, we are restoring the lake.”
In a statement last week, district authorities said the 336-hectare lake is being restored in order to become a reservoir to mitigate the effects of floods.
It said officials are to be deployed to handle the management of the restoration project, adding that the lake has become shallower now due to illegal encroachment of the land surrounding the lake by fish-breeders.
“In order to restore the lake smoothly, authorities require all residents to remove their fish-breeding farms within ten days,” the statement said.
Mr Sophang says delaying the eviction to 2020 is unacceptable.
“We didn’t agree with the villagers and now they are collecting their fish as they agreed to gradually remove their farms,” he says.
A 55-year-old man who goes only by Lorng says he is also skeptical about the intentions of the authorities in restoring the lake. Mr Lorng says he and his wife began breeding fish in 2000.
“I don’t believe that they’re restoring the lake to make it into a reservoir,” Mr Lorng says. “The authorities stopped the reclamation project about three to four years ago after people started protesting.”
“District authorities had allowed a private company to reclaim the lake, the company even built a district office for them,” he adds.
According to Mr Lorng, rice farmers also rely on the lake for their supply of water.
“Most people don’t support the reclamation project because it affected a lot of people’s livelihoods,” he says. “Especially those who rely on the lake for fish-breeding and rice-farming.”
Cheng Sovannara, another fish-breeder, echoes Ms Kuon’s opinion, especially on the lack of compensation.
“It usually takes more than one month to sell fish, we can’t sell everything within ten days,” Mr Sovannara says. “The authorities say we make the lake shallower, but how can the authorities allow some company to make the lake shallow now?”
“If they wanted to rehabilitate the lake then they should take sand out, not remove fish-breeding farms located in a protected lake,” he adds.
According to a 55-year-old fish breeder who declined to be named, he is among residents who are willing to protest due to a lack of compensation.
“We will not remove our farms because it takes one year to get income from fish-breeding. We did not steal this land – we rely on the lake – we don’t reclaim it like some tycoons,” he says. “In fact, we conserve the lake while others have destroyed this natural water reservoir.”
“The lake doesn’t need restoration. The authorities told us the lake is shallow, but that’s because someone has been reclaiming the other side of the lake,” he adds. “If they use force, we will struggle as much as we can and stop them from removing our farms.”
A man who goes only by Hour and who claimed he used to represent Lay Ngy Company. Mr Hour says the company was given permission to reclaim half of the lake.
“The company stopped reclaiming the lake and I also stopped working for the company,” he says. “But I wanted to let you know that we had permission from City Hall to sand dredge.”
“The one thing I would like to clarify is that we didn’t stop because people were protesting,” he adds, noting that the work stopped because we finished our job.”
Soeung Saran, acting executive director of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, says authorities should hold a public forum to clear all suspicions that residents have.
“I think to end this suspicion, the authorities should hold a public forum to discuss the impact and provide a suitable resolution,” Mr Saran says.
Prek Pnov district governor Sok Sambath declined to comment and referred the question to City Hall.
City Hall spokesman Met Meas Pheakdey says City Hall acknowledges the fact that residents are worried about losing their livelihood, but notes that maintaining state property and restoring the lake are necessary.
“This issue concerns residents, but I would like to clarify that it does not involve sand dredging – the authorities must maintain this property,” Mr Meas Pheakdey says. “I have no comment on old issues, but the new issue is that the lake is state property.”
He adds that the authorities will not be responsible for any damaged properties during the eviction, should residents fail to vacate the premise.
“We have already issued a notice and if the residents refused to listen then we would not be responsible for any damage or clearance,” Mr Meas Pheakdey says.