Chanthy Hot wears a big smile that rarely strays from her face as she speaks of saving dragon fish from extinction in Cambodia’s Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF).
Ironically, the dragon fish (Scleropages formosus) is endangered because it’s lucky according to Chinese tradition: The bright red or gold scales of the fish are believed to bring prosperity to the restaurateur, homeowner or shopkeeper who displays it.
“Five years ago, this species was nearly gone,” Chanthy said. “We knew we had to take urgent action to get fishermen to stop trading them immediately.”
Chanthy, a native Cambodian who majored in natural resources management in college, explains conservation issues with ease.
The mother dragon fish pick babies up in their mouth and swim around like that because it is more safe,” Chanthy explains. “But unfortunately, humans are smarter than fish. They capture them both with a net, eat the mother and sell the baby to a middleman who comes into the community to buy the babies and sell them, often to other countries like Thailand and the U.S.”
She began working with Conservation International (CI) as a college student, helping to gather data. Then, she became a CI employee — the only woman on the community engagement team. She often finds herself confronting community cultural norms to get her job done.
“I need to stay overnight in families’ homes and I need to go alone into the forests for research with men who have machetes or axes,” she explains. “You don’t usually do that in Cambodian culture. At times I feel scared, but after I do these things, I feel proud.”
Since 2006 and with support from the Conservation Stewards Program, CI Cambodia has maintained a conservation agreement with the Thma Doun Paov community, located on the periphery of the CCPF . Residents committed to ban harvest and sales of dragon fish, as well as halt the use of shifting cultivation. In return, community members who patrol and enforce the conservation commitments receive payment and the community itself receives funding for education as well as livestock and agricultural tools that help with farming. There have since been five other agreements signed with communities around the CCPF. Chanthy leads the socioeconomic monitoring efforts with each of these six communities, measuring the impacts of the agreements on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Chanthy says the toughest part of her job is navigating the different interpersonal relationships necessary for the agreement to work.
Her friendly demeanor has led some families in the community to see her as one of their own, even asking to adopt her, a high honor in Cambodian culture.
“It is hard,” Chanthy said. “Sometimes you have to be very close to them, but you can’t let it get too close because if you see them as family or your parents and they do something wrong with the conservation agreement, then you are in a tough position. It’s hard to tell them to stop doing things, or correct them for breaking rules.”
Her knowledge of community relationships, however, helped her navigate a big breakthrough in saving the dragon fish: Chanthy saw that one man in the community was highly respected by his neighbors, and was also profiting from working as a middleman in the trafficking of dragon fish.
“We switched him,” Chanthy said. “We told him we need you to be involved, you have the honor and respect of a lot of people in the community.”
So she helped turn the middleman, who used to earn money dealing in dragon fish , into a main actor in the conservation agreement. He now is in charge of collecting and distributing information on the agreement and conservation within the community.
“I think he is proud to be helping,” Chanthy said. “We tell him many people know him, even abroad people know of you. And he feels great. He is proof that not only money can make people satisfied.”
Through her community engagement and monitoring efforts, Chanthy played an important role in supporting the conservation agreements in the Cardamoms. She will be missed as she recently left CI to join the Cambodia branch of social development organization Caritas.