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Spotlight: Celebrating women in conservation

Va Sonyka / Khmer Times Share:
Ms Seila talks to villagers who live along the Mekong River. Supplied
At the age of 36, Chea Seila has recently been nominated as a pioneer for female conservationists in Cambodia, making her the only woman among six Mekong Conservation Heroes of Cambodia in 2020. A national wetland and livelihood expert, she is currently working on the Lower Mekong Basin Wetland Management and Conservation Project. Khmer Times talked to Ms Seila to discuss her journey as a woman in the field of environmental conservation and the realisations she has had since working for the Mekong.


KT: What environmental challenges have you found in the Mekong River?

Ms Seila: The Mekong River is a transboundary river running through six countries – China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong River is subject to several human activities and natural phenomena, including overfishing, illegal fishing, encroachment on flooded forests to expand agricultural land, pesticide poisoning, construction of dams for farming or energy conversion and climate change.

According to a recent study by the Wonders of Mekong, the giant fish population in the northeastern Mekong basin, including Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, have decreased in both body size and quantity, making the risk of extinction high. The presence of three types of giant fish – giant barb, wallago and seven-striped barb – is also thought to have decreased in the past and continues to decline globally. Unfortunately, the catfish, one of the most vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List, has also been rarely seen by fishermen on the Mekong recently. Sighting of the giant salmon carp (Aaptosyax grypus), which is the only other species of fish that lives only in the Mekong River, has also become sparse in the northeast of Cambodia.

Ms Seila with other Mekong conservationists. Supplied

KT: What motivated you to take on this job?

Ms Seila: This job has allowed me to visit many natural sites in Cambodia and see how such sites have been changing. It would make me feel sad if I do nothing as I witness the destruction of these unique natural treasures due to natural and man-made factors. I hope the younger generation can still see all these natural treasures as I do now. As a contributor to research and conservation efforts for threatened biodiversity and habitats, I’m so proud to extend my help to the project.

Frankly speaking, before engaging in this work, I did not understand what conservation was. What is meant by sustainable development? After going through many studies, I have learnt that the conservation of natural resources, especially the Mekong River Basin, is a big contributor to development.

The Mekong River is an important river on the planet, which provides water, livelihood and food security for more than 60 million people. With more than 800 species of fish found in the river, the Mekong is the third most diversified river in the world, next to the Amazon and the Kongo rivers.

There are more than 190 species of fish found in the Tonle Sap Lake making it the fourth largest freshwater fish shelter in the world, after lakes in East Africa. The Tonle Sap Lake is also a large bird sanctuary in Southeast Asia. It is currently home to many endangered species, many of which can be found in the Prek Toal Ramsar site, Southeast Asia’s largest waterbird colony. Lower Mekong basins in Cambodia, including the Tonle Sekong River, are the main waterways where over 100 species of fish reside.

According to the Mekong River Commission and other national survey reports, the estimated annual yield in 2015 amounted to approximately $11 billion and provides full-time employment to over five million people in countries along the Mekong.

A view of the lower Mekong basin. Supplied

KT: What difficulties have you experienced as a woman working as a Mekong conservationist?

Ms Seila: Every task has its ups and downs and every difficulty always comes with a solution. In Cambodian society, there is less support for women who work away from home and their families. Criticism is always there but it is important for a woman to do what is right, not to hurt anyone and damage her family’s honour. I work with a clear plan, passion and high commitment.

Conservation work includes fieldwork, which sometimes requires you to go to a villager’s house, in the forest or on the river and eat based on the circumstance. If you are not used to a flexible lifestyle, you may find it difficult to get involved with conservation. Women also have to dress up and communicate properly when working.

Most of your colleagues will be men. So, you have to know how to interact with them. Building trust and encouragement with family, friends and the community are two of the things I strive to develop the most as a woman conservationist.

KT: What are your experiences from working as a conservationist? How can we, as citizens, help save the Mekong?

Ms Seila: I learned that each person has the same needs such as clean water, clean air, daily food, security and entertainment. If we don’t have fertile soil for cultivating food, one drop of water for drinking and clean air for breathing, then how can we survive?

Conservation leads to sustainable development. For example, if people refrain from using illegal tools when fishing, future generations will still have fish to eat, and so on. Life is unpredictable. So, I hope future generations would still get the chance to know the great treasures of nature.

All men and women can participate in the conservation of the Mekong River, starting today, by making themselves role models for the younger generations.

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