“I get paid to guard these four trees. During the wet season I paddle around them every day. Some of the villagers hate me because I protect nature. I often have to arrest my neighbours for robbing nests, collecting eggs and for catching monkeys. Many of them complain that they live in the village but can’t find any work and that I am the only one who has a job and gets paid.”
Oehn, like Sokha, is 50. He used to be a hunter and by definition, a poacher, too. He still has his crocodile harpoon and his 5-pronged spear for the really big fish. Oehn lives in Prek Toal, a floating village on the north-eastern shores of the Tonle Sap. Prek Toal comprises a community of about 800 families tethered to half-submerged trees not far from the mouth of the Sange Ke River.
Oehn is not a big traveller. In fact, he has made two big trips in his entire life – both of them to Siem Reap in search of a doctor for his sick children. The distance to Siem Reap is 25 km.
Oehn´s world, the 25 000 ha biosphere in Prek Toal is haven to some of Nature’s rarest birds – from the greater adjutant stork (leptoptilos dubius) to the spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis). 7 globally threatened bird species nest in Oehn´s “territory”. Only 10 breeding pairs of the masked finfoot (heliopais personata) nest in the Prek Toal sanctuary.
Oehn cannot read or write. His oldest daughter Somnang can read but then the Khmer Rouge came to power and abolished education so the other four children remained illiterate. Oehn´s father died of starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime. Two brothers were killed by US bombs during the Vietnam war. His mother died of disease. Oehn has no idea when.
Chhem has borne Oehn five children. Oehn´s son Som is 20 years old. He earns his living as a fisherman and hopes to save 800 dollars which is the minimum required as a dowry in Prek Toal. Som thinks it will take him 7 years to amass this small fortune. Then he will ask his father and mother to go bride-shopping in the village. If their choice appeals to him, and the bride agrees, he will move in to live with her family for a 6 month test period. No, he will not be testing the bride. Her family will be examining Som to see if he will make it as the husband of their daughter.
Average life expectancy in Cambodia is 51.6 years. Oehn finds himself on a statistical threshold, a step away from death. His greatest fear is that he die before his wife does. As a ranger, he earns 5 USD a day, 15 days of the month. When he dies, his wife will be entirely dependant on their children.
“When I look back on my life I think I can look forward to my reincarnation. I am really looking forward to this. We humans cannot outrun death. I keep on telling my children that Death is inevitable. But we have to keep on fighting. When the father or mother fall ill then it musn´t come to pass that the child also becomes sick. The child has to struggle and earn money.”
Oehn hopes to keep protecting his four trees for some time to come. He has reached the Cambodian average of 51 years. From now on, each additional year is a small victory.