MacArthur Foundation Tries Various Strategies to Help Cambodia’s Great Lake

Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and an ecological hotspot, as recognized by UNESCO. This Cambodian lake keeps about 1.2 million people in the fishing business and is home to numerous endangered species, including the impressive Mekong catfish. The lake, however, has been in decline for years. Increased pollution, runoff from deforestation, and illegal fishing practices have all taken their toll. Numerous groups though are working on the region’s environmental problems, and the MacArthur Foundation (see IP's profile) is funding a variety of strategies.

In the past two years, the MacArthur Foundation has given out four grants to help Tonle Sap. These grants include: $350,000 to the University of Washington, $18,000 to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, $500,000 to Boston University’s Department of Biology, and $430,000 to Conservation International. United in the common goal of improving Tonle Sap’s environmental conditions, each organization has taken a different approach to the problem.

Conservation International is using its funds to work with Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration on improved resource management. The grant will support efforts to maintain fishery productivity by demonstrating successful practices in targeted communities. Boston University is developing a model that will visualize the dynamics and trade-offs involved in using the various ecosystem services of the Lower Mekong. The model will help resource managers make informed decisions involving fisheries and hydropower development.  The Documentation Center of Cambodia used its grant to premier a documentary film on the issues threatening Tonle Sap. The film is to be shown in three provinces throughout Cambodia to educate the public on the importance of healthy ecosystems. The University of Washington grant was used to collect and synthesize data to improve our basic understanding of Tonle Sap’s food webs. The information is meant to provide baseline data for conservation interventions in the future.

Four grants, four different strategies. A quick glance through MacArthur’s grants list shows a committed interest to Cambodia’s Tonle Sap region. However, the foundation appears flexible in how the work gets done. Willing to fund a variety of strategies in the fight against environmental degradation, MacArthur will be an interesting foundation to watch going forward.