Skip to main content

Self-portraits give voice to vulnerable Cambodian fishing communities

A fisherman checks his catch in Cambodia
Fishers were asked to share their perspectives on the role that fish play in their lives. Photo: provided

Climate change, land use change, and dams on the Mekong River are key drivers of shifting conditions for local communities whose livelihood and food security are deeply interwoven with their natural environment. A recent study led by researchers at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) published in the journal Ecology and Society now reveals first-hand accounts of how such environmental changes threaten the future of communities that depend on these ecosystems.

Fish in a bucket
“I am upset when I think about making a living from this. The fish that I caught don’t even fill up the container. It only filled up the bottom of the container.” (Man, 34y). Photo: provided

The study, which brought together Cornell researchers, Cambodian fishers and Cambodian researchers, used a methodology called photovoice. With photovoice, study participants take photos that researchers then use to facilitate interviews and group conversations during which the subjects share their life experiences and perspectives.

“Voices of the most vulnerable resource users are poorly integrated into traditional scientific knowledge,” says Dr. Kathryn Fiorella, assistant professor in the Department of Public & Ecosystem Health and first author on the study. “Photovoice is a methodology that goes very quickly to the heart of what people are thinking. And these perspectives are fundamental to understand interactions between livelihoods and environmental change, and ultimately underlie successful resource management.”

Fish market in Cambodia
“I want to show my daily life, that when we get fish, we sell them. If we don't sell fish for a day, that's bad because we won't have money to buy things for our kids.” (Woman, 36y). Photo: provided

Fiorella, along with Elizabeth Fox ’09, Ph.D. ’16, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health, two former Cornell students Heather Magnuson, D.V.M. '22, and Antara Finney-Stable, M.P.H. '20, independent scholar Chork Sim and Beloit College student Voleak Phan, collaborated with local partners at the Center for Khmer Studies to select 37 participants. 

The chosen participants came from four fishing villages adjacent to Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake and from communities within its floodplain, capturing the diversity of fishing activities. The researchers gave cameras to participants and asked them to document the role that fish play in their lives.

Lotus flowers on a market stand
"Other people farm rice during the dry season, so they pump all the water out. I can earn a lot of money from lotus flowers. More money than from fishing." (Man, 43y). Photo: provided

Some expected topics emerged from the interviews and group discussions, including income generated from fishing activities, fish consumption and fish biodiversity. The researchers were surprised, however, when the photovoice participants mentioned they are increasingly shifting away from fishing as a livelihood. Differences also emerged between different communities. For example, those living in areas that flood during the wet season had no alternative livelihoods and faced much more acute challenges.

Illegality was another interesting theme that emerged when people contrasted their small-scale methods with those of large fishers. “They dubbed large scale fishing illegal, which may or may not have been,” says Fiorella. “Legality was more about what was sustainable for the fisheries. Fishing community members spoke of the sharp power imbalance they perceived and how it affects their livelihoods, rather than actual fishing regulations.”

Funded in part by the National Geographic Society, the perspectives collected in this study are meant to inform future government initiatives and bolster existing programs such as the Community Fish Refuges program that manages ponds that hold water throughout the year and provide a dry season sanctuary for breeding fish.

Written by Elodie Smith

A version of this story is published in the Cornell Chronicle.