Furqan Asif – Coastal Cambodia

In the spotlight: Student Research in Community Conservation

Furqan Asif – Coastal Cambodia

Furqan Asif is a PhD candidate in International Development at the University of Ottawa (Canada). He is supervised by CCRN affiliate Melissa Marschke and is currently in the midst of writing his dissertation after having spent 18 months in Cambodia conducting fieldwork. His research looks at migration, well-being and resilience in Cambodian coastal fishing communities.

Continue reading  to learn more about Furqan’s thesis “Leaving the coast: the interplay of migration, well-being and resilience in Cambodian coastal fishing communities” and the insights he gained while completing his PhD. The interview is also available in audio format, click play on the recording below to listen to Furqan’s Interview.

Furqan Asif is a PhD candidate in International Development at the University of Ottawa

What is the topic you are addressing in your thesis?

The landscape, both socially and ecologically, of coastal fishing communities in many parts of the world is rapidly changing, particularly in Southeast Asia. On the social side, migration by individuals from coastal communities to cities in pursuit of economic opportunities is affecting community dynamics. Ecologically, environmental degradation, overexploitation of fish stocks and climate change are negatively affecting species’ abundance and diversity, thereby straining livelihoods and exacerbating poverty. These trends are particularly pronounced in the small-scale fishing communities of Cambodia, a country which boasts, by some estimates, the highest fish consumption in the region. Coastal Cambodia is an ideal case to analyze and understand the dynamics that influence social-ecological change given the rapid shifts occurring as a result of emerging economic opportunities (i.e. increasing connectivity, and resultant migration to secondary cities) and rapid economic growth, in the context of declining natural resources and environmental change. Specifically, my research seeks to understand a) the role migration plays as a livelihood strategy in Cambodian fishing communities; b) how migration affects social well-being of fishers and their households (within and beyond coastal villages); and c) if a social wellbeing analysis of migration can contribute to an improved understanding of the “social” in social-ecological resilience.

Shrimp are laid out to dry in a coastal fishing village (Koh Kong, Cambodia).

What led you to become interested in this field?

My interest in this field can be traced back to a decade ago when I became introduced to interdisciplinary work, starting with my undergraduate minor in Environmental Science (my Master degree was also in the same field). Environmental Science involves a variety of disciplines (e.g. environmental chemistry, earth science, environmental risk, etc.) so it allowed me to get a very comprehensive understanding of environmental challenges while understanding large-scale environmental processes. As a result of this specialization, I eventually found my niche in applying what I had learned in the context of international development while working in the Canadian government, and then later, internationally in the Philippines, and most recently with the United Nations.

While I developed understanding on the environmental side, I wanted to get the same within international development so I chose to pursue my PhD in this field. Like Environmental Science, the field of international development also involves a variety of disciplines (e.g. international relations, economics, political science, anthropology, etc.) so it was a natural fit.

As I was developing my doctoral research proposal, I became really interested in the area of social-ecological systems which emphasized the importance of looking at social and ecological systems as interconnected and that in order to get a holistic understanding, you have to look at both. The concept also bridged the natural sciences with social sciences and, on a pedagogical and epistemological level, it was something that I was seeking to do (as well as on a personal level), so I found myself strongly attracted to it. Later on, I was introduced to the concept of resilience which is linked to the literature on social-ecological systems (captured by the term social-ecological resilience), and this became the conceptual launchpad for my doctoral thesis.

A fisherman prepares one of 600 crab traps with bait before going out to sea to set them at a coastal fishing village in Koh Kong, Cambodia. Fishermen have had to increase fishing effort i.e. number of traps over the years as marine resources have declined.

What excites you about the work you did for your thesis?

What’s exciting about the work is that there have been significant changes in coastal Cambodia, even in the last five to ten years, particularly with the opening of the Special Economic Zone near the Thai border, which has drawn thousands of Cambodians – many from the coastal villages. So this represents a major shift in the socioeconomic landscape in this part of Cambodia, which itself is set amongst the backdrop of ecological change i.e. declines in fish catch and overall negative impacts on marine resources as a result of environmental change. Understanding the effect that these changes will have, and are having, on small-scale coastal fishing communities therefore becomes important.

A family in a coastal fishing village sort through and process their catch (Koh Kong, Cambodia).

Did you run into any difficulties during your studies? If so, how did you address them?

Of course! One of the first challenges I had was when my research assistant abruptly quit about two months after the start of my fieldwork. That was completely unexpected and, needless to say, put a halt to interviews, field visits, etc. While it was stressful, I managed to address it by focusing on using my network and social media to put out a call for another research assistant. After a month of soliciting (and waiting), I managed to find someone else who turned out to be very reliable and excellent.

Another difficulty was finding a boat driver to take us to the fishing communities which were on mangrove-enclosed islands (about a 40 minute journey over the ocean). We had no prior contacts or connections so my research assistant and I went to the small port where we knew boats arrived from the islands and inquired to get advice. From this, we were able to get a few phone numbers and get a boat hire. Later on when we were in a similar situation where our previous boat hire was unavailable, my assistant had the idea of going to the nearby fishing village in town and knocking on houses to find someone, which proved successful.

How does your research affect the community you worked with?

This is a question that is pondered by most graduate students and is a difficult one to answer. On the one hand, it is difficult to have a concrete answer while doing fieldwork because you are still discovering and have yet to establish findings and insights. On the other, the nature of the research and how connected it is to the everyday realities of the community you’re working with will determine how they will be affected by it.

In my case, what I can say is that I hope that my research gets in the right hands and draws the spotlight on these communities which have often been overlooked but nevertheless face many challenges to their livelihoods. To this end, I will have an active dissemination strategy so that more resources and attention can be paid to the coastal communities.

Children in a coastal fishing village playing a board game (Koh Kong, Cambodia).

How does your research contribute to your field?

It will contribute on two fronts, on the theoretical and practical. Until recently, work on resilience has traditionally been biased towards the ecological with social aspects left relatively under-addressed. Using a mix of qualitative methods, my research draws on the social well-being approach to operationalize resilience and contribute to the understanding of social resilience for small-scale coastal fishing communities in Cambodia.

On the practical front, my research is aiming to get a better understanding of the role migration plays as a livelihood strategy in Cambodian fishing communities and how it affects their social wellbeing.

What do you think are the next steps for learning more about the topics you are addressing in your thesis?

For those that want to learn more about coastal fishing communities in Cambodia, I would highly recommend my supervisor’s book Life, Fish and mangroves which you can read for free via a link from her website: http://melissamarschke.weebly.com/book.html

For more information on  Furqan Asif’s work visit his website: www.furqanasif.com

A fisherman lays out his traps in a coastal fishing village (Koh Kong, Cambodia).