Adaptation to environmental change among fishing-dependent households in Cambodia.

Published online
19 Sep 2018
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Schwartz, N. B. & Gätke, P. & Baran, E.

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In the context of environmental change, the adaptive capacity of 50 fishing-dependent households in four villages in Cambodia has been examined. It is found that environmental change impacts rural livelihoods that are dependent on natural resources for their welfare in terms of direct consumption and income generation. The analysis shows that villagers adapt to environmental changes with varied success: 32% of the respondents adapted successfully, 20% moderately and 44% unsuccessfully. Among households with fishing as a primary occupation only 10% adapted successfully. Those doing agriculture or business/selling were generally more successful. Declining fish abundance, reported by 41 households (82% of the total), was the most frequently observed environmental change. Illegal activities, overexploitation and habitat loss were the key reasons provided for the decline. The direct reduction in catch per unit effort is followed by a decrease in other related livelihood activities such as fish processing. Fish catch composition had also been negatively impacted over the past ten years, with the average size of fish caught having declined. Nineteen respondents (38% of the total) had observed a decrease in wild plant abundance during the past ten years, and this has affected their ability to collect wild plants for food and sale. Habitat loss due to deforestation and forest fire and overexploitation were the major reasons for the decline. Wild animal abundance also decreased, according to 38% of the interviewed households, with overexploitation, habitat loss and illegal activities cited as the most important reasons for the decline. More than half of the fishers changed types of fishing gear in response to the declining average fish size, including to illegal types such as fyke nets, giant lift nets and enclosure nets. Some still use the same gears as before, but in larger quantities. Despite the adaptive measures undertaken by the surveyed fishers, 42% still catch less fish than before. The increasingly intensive fishery carried out may be unsustainable, as the store of natural capital is deteriorating, and thereby eroding the long-term adaptive capacity of the fishers. In addition, to the increased pressure from the still more intensive fishing, the likely impacts from dams and climate change may further aggravate the situation. About a third of the respondents do aquaculture, typically as a form of saving or investment. As a result of environmental change, in form of increased costs or difficulties accessing sufficient wild fish for feed, some fish farmers switched to a species that eats less fish. Another common adaptive response to the declining fish abundance is to exploit other natural resources. The results of this study indicate that this leads to decline in these alternative resources and thus may damage people's long-term adaptive capacity. Improved markets for some wild animals and plants led some villagers to collect larger quantities than before and thus put pressure on the resource, which many have traditionally used for subsistence. Declines in fish, wild animals and plants have reduced the opportunity of villagers to pursue natural resource-based alternatives. In response to the declining fish, wild plant and animal abundance, many respondents "adapt" by eating less fish, fewer vegetables and more nutritionally poor plain rice. This reduction in the nutritional value of the food consumed may eventually reduce the welfare of the rural population. Successful adaptation was found to be highly correlated with wealth, land ownership and educational level. Households that are better off adapt more successfully than poor households, and a high dependence on natural resources and a general lack of assets leave many poor families vulnerable to the effects of environmental change. Social capital, primarily in the form of family networks, only helps to the extent that the family has the means to help, which appears to be rare, especially among the unsuccessful adapters. Other important characteristics include remoteness of villages and the diversity of occupations in the livelihood strategies of households. The less diversified the occupations are and the more remote a village is, the less is the adaptive capacity to environmental change. The adaptive responses that were least subject to environmental change, e.g. selling/doing business, dry rice farming or livestock raising, were also the most successful. These occupations, however, involve an initial investment that poor villagers are unlikely to be able to afford. Unsuccessful adapters, who are more likely to borrow for their daily needs or to overcome shocks, have difficulties accessing the larger amounts of credit required to make investment in assets that could help build their adaptive capacity. In view of the widespread dependence on natural resources, improved management of these is considered to be crucial to maintain or strengthen people's adaptive capacity. It was found that environmental degradation and change has not just affected people's ability to get income, but also their ability to secure adequate food and nutrition. The diverse responses received indicate that there is not necessarily one preferred way to improve adaptive capacity. Rather, projects to build adaptive capacity may benefit from being as diverse as the livelihoods they target.

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