For Cambodian fishing families, an effort to hook a healthier future

Buddhist-turned Adventist pastor Sophat Sorn hands out pamphlets to fellow Cambodian refugees in Stockton warning them of the harmful mercury levels in many delta-area fish, which have been linked to learning and memory problems. [photos: Shannon Sorn/ANN]

http://news.adventist.org/data/2007/1196177602/index.html.en

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Stockton’s Cambodian families choose between health and subsistence culture
Jeremy Miller

Sunday, October 28, 2007

More… In the early afternoon, Interstate 5 northbound is mostly empty except for walls of semis barreling toward Sacramento. Past the refineries and shipping cranes heaped up at the Port of Stockton, my guide, Sophat Sorn, tells me to grab an exit.

We park and walk to a thin strip of grass and trees that runs along a wide canal and marina called Buckley Cove. It’s a Wednesday, a little past noon, and we see only a few fishers at the water’s edge. Sorn, a small man with penetrating eyes, gets out of the car. He throws on a fishing cap and a pair of sunglasses. “This is a very popular spot,” he says, snapping fish advisory pamphlets printed in Khmer to a clipboard. He then traces a hand along the rocky peninsula, extending down the opposite side of the channel. “On weekends, they fish from both banks.”

The first group we run into is a Cambodian family, a husband and wife sitting with their two small girls on a blanket covered with fishing poles and crushed soda cans. Behind them is a rust-pocked minivan with the hood up and radiator cap removed. At the water’s edge are four poles propped against buckets and small stands. The girls giggle and point into one of the buckets. A small catfish circles in the bottom. On the surface floats a dying sunfish. “I caught that one,” says Santanya, poking at the sunfish and forcing a little blood from its gills. We move down the waterfront and pass two shirtless men clumsily driving golf balls into the water. Beyond them, another family pulls rods, reels and 5-gallon buckets from the back of a van.

Sorn is a Cambodian refugee, an ex-soldier who has become a Seventh-day Adventist minister and health advocate with a vision: to inform people about the dangers of eating contaminated fish caught in the waterways around Stockton. For three years he worked with the California Department of Health’s Environmental Health Investigations Branch, to conduct outreach work among Cambodian fishers who depend on those fish as a key food source. Now his ministering takes more time, but he still slows down enough to speak with local fishers along the waterways and in his congregation to “spread the gospel of eating fish safely.”

As we make our way back up the shoreline, we notice a large striped bass gasping for air on the grass. Striped bass are a carnivorous fish and toxins, built up from the consumption of other fish, tend to “biomagnify” in their tissues. According to California guidelines, striped bass caught here should be eaten no more than twice a month by adults, and once a month by pregnant women and children. The bass is over the legal size limit, and Sorn asks if they plan to eat the fish. The father nods in affirmation and says his family eats fish caught from the delta almost daily.

“They have not seen the advisory,” Sorn says, and launches into a sincere pitch. I can see by the shift in the family’s expression that Sorn’s words have touched a nerve.

He translates: “I asked them if they care about the health of their children.”

Since 1975, approximately 150,000 Cambodian refugees have settled in the United States. They came in successive waves through the early ’90s to escape the genocidal campaign of Pol Pot, which between 1975 and 1979 wiped out an estimated 1.5 million – 15 to 20 percent – of Cambodia’s population. Though many arrived in this country with no possessions, nearly all carry heavy psychic baggage. A 2005 RAND survey of Cambodian refugees living in Long Beach, the United States’ largest Cambodian community, depicted a horrific collective experience. Ninety-nine percent of participants had experienced starvation during the Khmer Rouge’s campaign; 90 percent had a family member or friend murdered. Fifty-one percent were diagnosed with depression and 62 percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

While strides have been made in quantifying the mental health issues facing the nation’s displaced peoples, less is known about the subtle challenges that define day-to-day life. Stockton’s Cambodians have found a measure of connection to the old ways in the low-lying, engineered waterways in and around the city. Guided by thousands of years of traditional fishing on the Mekong Delta, the Cambodian fishers look for identity and nourishment in the waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. But the Central Valley’s history of mining, agriculture, industry and huge water-diversion projects has made subsistence fishing a risky proposition. The community now finds itself in the intractable position of choosing between the health of its families and the survival of their subsistence culture.

Stand on a levee on the outskirts of Stockton at sundown, and you’ll see the sun glimmer in the low-lying rows of corn and alfalfa. A Cambodian fisher named Matthew Chao, whom I met at Louis Park, a popular fishing spot downstream from the Port of Stockton, said that at this time of day the delta looks like the Mekong. But looks, as they say, can be deceiving. Stockton’s Cambodian fishers practice their tradition in a land of contingent hydrology, a land of unquantifiable pollution – a land of failing waters.

In the past 10 years, the amount of water exported from the delta has increased by 20 percent, from 5 million to 6 million acre-feet. At peak demand in midsummer, as much as 65 percent of the freshwater inflow into the delta is shunted away through an intricate system of pumps, canals and aqueducts and redistributed across the state. “The intensity with which we have managed the delta’s water has ratcheted up,” says Tina Swanson, senior scientist with the Bay Institute who has spent several years studying the impact of engineering on the health of the delta’s aquatic ecosystems. “But there’s been a revelation. The way the system is being managed, the way people are living on it, the way it’s being used for various resources including water, fish and farming is unsustainable.”

Since the 1970s, reduced flows have led to declines in native fish species such as the delta smelt, sturgeon, striped bass and chinook salmon. But in the past five years, the situation has reached a critical threshold. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 12 of 29 species of delta fish have either died out or are on a path toward extinction. “Fish populations have crashed. The planktonic food web has collapsed,” Swanson says. “The pelagic ecosystem is falling apart in front of us.”

Fish able to endure the gantlet of low flows and altered hydrology, must also cope with a “secondary” issue on the delta: water pollution. It’s a simple chemical equation. As the amount of fresh water coming into the lower delta is reduced by exports, the concentration of toxins in the remaining water increases. The sources of pollution in the watershed are multiple and long lasting. Gold mines in the upper tributaries have leached an estimated 66 million pounds of mercury, which was used in a chemical process to separate gold from its ore, into regional waterways. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers, storm water and sewage drain into waterways and feed algal blooms that suck oxygen from the water and kill fish. Remnants of heavy industry, such as the McCormick and Baxter Creosoting Co., now a Superfund site, litter the banks of the San Joaquin’s Deepwater Ship Channel and its manmade arms. McCormick and Baxter pumped toxic chemicals, including arsenic and other toxic wood preserving compounds, into a side arm of the San Joaquin between 1946 and 1991. According to the EPA report, “Fish in the area contain elevated site-related contaminants and pose a risk to human and ecological receptors.” Last December, the Martin Operating Partnership, which operates a sulfur processing plant at the Port of Stockton, was cited by the Regional Water Quality Control Board for allowing highly acidic puddles to form when storm water ran off large, uncovered sulfur piles. The iridescent yellow cones are located only a few hundred feet from the banks of the San Joaquin River. (According to Jack Del Conte, assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, Martin has since moved swiftly to fix the problem – including cleaning contaminated soil, constructing drains and improving wastewater holding ponds.)

But nothing provides a visceral sense of water quality threats to the delta like a boat trip. Last July, I rode out with Sorn, local and state health workers and environmentalists on the boat of the now-defunct environmental group, Deltakeeper. Our goal was to venture into the maze of slow-moving tidal channels in the region, often referred to as the “lower colon” of the delta. As we set out, a powerboat ripped past and our boat skittered across its wake. Farther on we saw breached levees, outflow pipes and ramshackle houseboats where the group had discovered sewage being discharged directly into the water. Katie Hopkins, a Deltakeeper educator, pointed out a large drain where storm runoff flows unfiltered into a side channel of the San Joaquin. Continuing on, a crop duster climbed, then dove steeply toward the fields below the levees. Fine white plumes trailed from its wingtips. Within seconds we felt the mist on our skin, in our eyes. The chemical residue, meaty and acrid, lingered like garlic in the sinuses.

If the great unconscious of geography and culture ever conspired to create a piscine civilization, it was the Cambodian or Khmer culture. The great kingdom of Angkor, which once boasted 30 million inhabitants and dominated Southeast Asia from the 12th to the 15th centuries, was economically tied to the natural wealth contained in Cambodia’s “Great Lake.” The Tonle Sap River, one of many waterways that drain into the vast Mekong Delta, is perhaps the richest freshwater fishery in the world. Though increased pressure and pollution have caused a decline in the Tonle Sap fisheries, the waters continue to provide. On the first full moon in November, Cambodians hold their annual water festival, the Bon Om Touk, to mark the end of the rainy season and the Tonle Sap River’s reversal of flow, “upstream,” toward Tonle Sap Lake. The reversal results in a mass migration of fish, which fishers harvest with bamboo rods, seine nets, long lines trailing a hundred baited hooks and dynamite.

Because there is little legacy of heavy industry, mining and chemical-intensive agriculture in their homeland, Cambodian fishers come with a cultural misunderstanding of the risks in the waters of the delta, says Sorn. “They look to see if the water is cloudy. If it looks clear, they assume it’s clean – and they fish,” says Sorn. Lim Leang, a Stockton outreach worker, agrees with Sorn’s sentiment that cultural misconceptions have hampered efforts to educate Stockton’s Cambodian fishers. “The water in Cambodia may look like pudding in places, but it’s basically clean,” he says. “On the delta, the fishers see clear to the bottom, and say ‘what pollution?’ even though it may have mercury, pesticides and PCBs in it.”

At the state level, the task of looking at how waterborne toxins impact fish and local communities falls largely on two organizations: the Environmental Health Investigations Branch and the Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment. A 2005 poll of 500 low-income Stockton women conducted by the California Department of Health Services showed that one in three regularly eat locally caught fish. Methylmercury, a derivative of elemental mercury produced by bacteria in river sediments, is found in most delta sport fish, including striped bass, catfish and sturgeon. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, developing fetuses are particularly vulnerable. The EPA estimates that 1 in 6 babies born in the United States is at risk of neurological problems – attention deficit and impairment of motor skills, balance, speech and memory – associated with methylmercury consumption.

While no formal studies have yet been conducted to show how mercury has impacted Stockton’s Cambodian community, Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment scientist Robert Brodberg points to a widely cited study of fish consumption conducted by Danish researchers in the Faroe Islands. The study concluded that mercury concentration in maternal cord blood was a predictor for “deficits in language, attention and memory.” “If you exceed the guidelines, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have immediate problems,” says Brodberg. “But the idea is to keep exposures lower in these communities over the long term, so that you stay well below any of the subtle behavioral effects detected in those other studies.”

With his youthful face concealed beneath large aviator glasses and a black fedora, 56-year-old fisherman Moeung Sithan says he has worked the waters around Stockton for 17 years. I ask if the dangers of water pollution and the treacherous currents have changed the way he approaches fishing. “We’ve seen the signs and heard people talking about the dangers of fishing here,” he says. “We don’t really listen. We’ve been doing it a long time.”

In September, I met with Savong Lam and Lim Leang at the Park Village Apartments, a housing complex a few miles north of downtown Stockton. Park Village, which is home to more than 200 families, is the epicenter of Stockton’s Cambodian community and ground zero for the fish-contamination issue. Lam and Leang are the children of Cambodian refugees and, as such, understand the complex cultural terrain in which their work is carried out. Their group, a nonprofit called United Cambodian Families, provides services including voter registration, ESL classes and career counseling. Last year, says Leang, UCF distributed fish advisories and other materials to 1,500 people at the Cambodian New Year and various health fairs. This year, they are leading nutritional seminars for pregnant women and new mothers.

No one knows exactly how many subsistence fishers there are on the 1,600-square-mile delta. However, Lam and Leang estimate there may be a few hundred fishers among Stockton’s 10,000 Cambodian residents. They can be seen on any day of the week, casting out from the margins: the reed-choked levees of Whiskey Slough, the grassy shores of Buckley Cove and March Lane and the rutted asphalt of Weber Avenue. But the fish-eating population extends beyond the people with the poles. Vendors, many of whom are fishers themselves, go door-to-door hawking locally caught fish in Cambodian neighborhoods.

Doeung On is a fish consumer and a fish seller. She sits cross-legged on the floor of her cramped Park Village apartment surrounded by large color portraits of her family. Behind my chair, a 5-gallon bucket overflows with freshly picked sweet potatoes. On says she fills the same containers with crayfish she catches from side canals of the San Joaquin. A bucket, which she says takes her most of the day to fill, may bring $20 to $30. With the little bit of extra money earned, she buys small things – Cambodian DVDs, books, magazines – and thinks about saving for airfare to visit her grown children who now live in Philadelphia and Washington state. “In Park Village, all residents live below the poverty line,” says Lam. “So it’s difficult to tell them not to eat the fish – or to stop selling them. They have very little to begin with.”

Within heavy rolling gates, the development buzzes with activity – children playing at midday, men snapping nets in the sun and women carrying baskets of clothes toward the coin-op laundry. Though the outward indicators of poverty are few (the grass is cut, the paint is fresh and the courtyards between building are tidy) a subtle and more insidious kind of poorness is at play: a poverty of choice. Lam tells of old women who, in 20-plus years as residents, have seen little more than a 2-mile strip of Stockton that lies between Park Village and the Cambodian grocery store on Pershing Avenue. “We took a group of Cambodian kids – most of them born here – out recently to see the big houses in Morada, just a few miles north of Stockton,” she says. “Most of them were like, ‘Wow, I never knew anything like this existed.’ ”

Until the establishment of CalFed’s environmental justice mini-grant program in 2000, the California Department of Health Services took a laissez-faire approach to the fish-contamination issue. Its main outreach initiative was designing and hanging signs in popular fishing spots throughout the delta. One can be seen under the Interstate 5 flyover in Stockton. Its simple message, “Don’t eat the fish caught here,” is translated into six languages – Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, Chinese and Russian. Judging by the crowds that still gather at water’s edge, the placard’s impact is questionable.

This relatively new, grassroots outreach on fish contamination, too, has had its share of difficulty. Many in the community harbor a deep mistrust of government and authority figures, says Lam. Indeed, several times during interviews with local residents I heard sentiments such as “The Cambodian government can’t be trusted,” and “It does not take care of the people.” That mind-set has carried over, says Lam. “They’re not always sure at first about why we’re doing what we’re doing. But once they see you’re building relationships, they tend to open up.”

The lingering trauma of genocide is compounded by poverty and cultural isolation. The unemployment rate is 35 percent among San Joaquin County’s Cambodians. More than half of Stockton’s Cambodian population lives below the poverty line. Nearly the same percentage is “linguistically isolated,” meaning that no member in a household speaks English.

Food, however, has continued to provide a powerful link with family and lost tradition. At Park Village food means fish. By some estimates, it accounts for 70 percent of protein in the Cambodian diet. So when Naey Sarith asks if I’d like to join her family for a traditional Cambodian meal, I could hardly decline – or avoid fish. We sit down on a bamboo mat with Sarith’s sons Chanta, 23, and Samang, 21. The stereo throbs with early ’90s R&B, but Chanta says he prefers Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. Naey and Samang set out several Cambodian dishes, including spicy beef stew, bok choy soup and thuek kreung, a chili, lime and garlic-seasoned paste made from mashed and fermented fish caught from the delta. We spread the sauce on a variety of greens, including thinly sliced cucumbers; green tomatoes; crisp, grassy dragon’s tail stalks; and spongy squashes with a taste reminiscent of eggplant. The taste of fish lightly accents the thuek kreung’s exploding flavors of garlic, lime and chili. “This is not the kind of thing you get in a Cambodian restaurant,” says Lam.

Chanta laughs and rubs thin, tattooed biceps. “Definitely not,” he says, carefully ladling some stew into his bowl. “This is old-style cooking. Straight up.”

A common interest seems to be emerging among groups that have long clashed on the delta: the ecosystem. Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, campaign director for the environmental group Restore the Delta, says her group has built a constituency of farmers, developers, ecologists and fishers who understand that the fate of the delta’s communities depends on the maintenance of the delta’s aquatic ecosystems. “We agreed that the delta is the most important natural asset in the area. We agreed that whether you think it should be farmed or protected for wildlife or that houses should be built right on top of it, no one wants to live next to a dead swamp,” says Barrigan-Parilla.

While infrastructure and ecological issues still dominate the outlook of environmental groups, the region’s subsistence fishers are beginning to be seen as part of the equation. Environmental justice groups such as Clean Water Action and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water have begun to talk about subsistence fishing in the context of water as a “fundamental human right.” Restore the Delta launched a Healthy Delta Communities campaign in May in which fish are described as “the barometer for good water quality for all users.”

To find out more, I met with Sejal Choksi, an environmental lawyer for Baykeeper in their downtown San Francisco offices. Choksi has an impressive resume, punctuated by her leadership in a successful legal campaign to impose limits on agricultural runoff. I asked whether she saw the emerging recognition of the needs of subsistence fishers as a shift in ecological perspective. In other words, can restoring the delta be reframed as a push to protect the delta’s fragile human ecosystems?

Choksi responded with a story. She recalled a meeting a couple of years back between community leaders in the African American and Laotian communities in the Bay Area and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board for interim solutions to deal with the fish-contamination issue. “We spent two or three hours coming up with a list of things that could be done to get the message out about pollution in their communities,” Choksi says. “And it was just great. We had a whole whiteboard full of ideas. For the Laotian community the idea was to provide small tanks and create fish farms in their backyards to satisfy their cultural need for raising their own fish.”

“So what happened?” I ask eagerly. “Did you do it?”

“It never got off the whiteboard,” Choksi replies. The dream of fish farms, environmental awareness and self-sustaining communities all hang in bureaucratic limbo at the regional water board. “It’s been hard,” Choksi wrote in a later e-mail, “to get them to commit to getting the dischargers of mercury to properly fund risk-reduction efforts to protect human health.”

With the scale of the delta’s problems – and the number of competing interests and agencies involved in determining its future – moving environmental justice to the forefront of the debate will be difficult. And while people throughout the delta struggle daily with the implications of fading water supplies and quality, the bulk of the state’s resources are being marshaled for the next big technical fix. But the delta’s subsistence fishers present a unique dilemma to the state’s water bureaucracy, one that is not reducible to data sets and simple equations, one resistant to the most ingenious engineering. Their lines reach down into darkest depths of California’s water policy decisions and reel up a great truth: as the water goes, so go the fish, the fishers – and the delta.

Jeremy Miller is a New Jersey writer who writes about people, science and the environment. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and the Gotham Gazette.

This article appeared on page P – 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/10/28/CMP4SJVN8.DTL

Sophat Sorn on the bank of the river at Louis Park in Stockton. Sorn is a health advocate who works to educate his fellow Cambodians about the dangers of eating fish caught in the delta. Photo by Kendra Luck, special to the Chronicle

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STOCKTONSpeaks!
SOPHAT SORN
Sophat Sorn has a great love for his native country, Cambodia. On her soil, he learned great lessons, in life and in loss. Sophat never wanted to leave Cambodia. But on October 30, 1991, Sophat and his family arrived in Petaluma, California, to start a new life. Two weeks later, the family arrived in Stockton. Now, surrounded by his children, Sophat tells stories of his lost youth, homeland, friends and family left behind…
Sophat’s story begins in 1953 at his birth in Cambodia. The eighth of nine children born to a working farmer and merchant, Sophat knew what it was to work hard. He spent many days working with his parents on the farm and in the fields. The work was backbreaking, but Sophat enjoyed the time he spent with family. He dreamed of someday becoming the man his parents expected him to become.
In the early 1960s, he attended elementary school. As he progressed through his classes, Sophat earned the opportunity to attend college and study with professors from abroad. It was in secondary education and college that he learned to speak French and English, in addition to Khmer, his native tongue. Every day after school, Sophat would come home to work on the farm with his parents. However, Sophat parents valued his education and encouraged him to study hard. They believed that education would lead Sophat to a life of stability and a future in which Sophat could provide for a family.
In 1971, at the age of 18, Sophat joined the Republican army fighting the Communist regime. On the battlefield, Sophat realized that he was no longer a child. During his years of service, he was responsible for 100 or more men, most of whom were older than he was. This was an enormous responsibility for such a young man, but clearly one that could not have been his had he not reached the maturity of an adult.
Sophat served his country for four years before the downfall of the Republic on April 17, 1975. Along with millions of city dwellers who were forced out of the capital at gunpoint, Sophat was sent to work in the Khmer Rouge Economic Zone for four years. In 1983, when the country fell into Communist hands, he and his family escaped to a border camp, for fear of being sent to the “killing fields.”
Sophat had grown up with aspirations of a stable life, a happy family and a profession that would help his country. In December 1983, when Sophat and his family left their home to travel to a camp along the Thai-Cambodian border, Sophat began to see his dream slip away. Instead of thoughts about a future job or home, Sophat’s thoughts were on immediate survival. The journey to the camp was a dangerous one. The ruling government was looking for any excuse to frame a refuge as a traitor to Cambodia. He believes that God’s help allowed him and family to arrive safely at the camp a few days after leaving their home. Even though they were thankful to have made the treacherous journey, Sophat and his family were forced to endure a border camp for eight more years.
When the chance came, Sophat and family left Cambodia for America. With their arrival in the United States, Sophat felt incredible joy. He now had the two most important things in his life, family and freedom. In this new world, he could start a new life.
He determined to teach his children about the culture they had lost. One of the ways Sophat pursued this goal was through involvement in the large Cambodian community in Stockton. In this community, he feels welcome, respected, and admired. With the help of the community, he has honored his family name and culture.
On the other hand, Sophat has chosen to depart from the community in his lifestyle. He converted from Buddhism to Christianity and has a strong faith in Jesus Christ and the second coming. Because of his beliefs, Sophat joined the Seventh Day Adventist church. Even though he no longer practices the
Cambodian traditions associated with Buddhism, Sophat works hard to remain active in Cambodian community life.
In his youth, Sophat would sit for hours after dinner, under a kerosene lamp, listening to his father’s stories that so often inspired and entertained him.
Now, relaxing in his home with his family surrounding him, Sophat tells his own stories of growing up. He remembers as a boy being charged with blowing a shiny whistle in the Marriage Marching Procession at his older brother’s wedding. He felt great pride as he watched his father, decked out in a full police uniform, commanding the flow of traffic for his family’s celebration.
Sophat also likes to pass down the advice given to him by the family elders as he was growing up. “Be a master of what you do,” they would say. “Be honest and live upright,” or “Grateful people never go down.” Sophat uses these phrases as guiding principles to teach his children about obedience and respect for parents and elders. He wants his children to understand the importance of education and of family values. He wants his family to remember that Cambodia has a sad, but proud history. “The Cambodian people should not lose hope, for they are a strong people.”
He smiles and laughs as he walks along the dusty road of his youth in his mind. He imagines that his children will grow up and tell their children stories about Sophat and his ancestors. “Yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision. But, if we do good deeds today, every yesterday will become a dream of happiness and every tomorrow, a vision of hope. Be careful, therefore, how you use today.”
Interviewer: Vaughn Lee
Author: Nancy Snider
Ethnic Group: Cambodian American
Generation: Middle

http://www.stocktonspeaks.org/pdfs/Sophat_Sorn.pdf

http://www.stocktonspeaks.org/html/SornMiddle.html

http://spectrummagazine.typepad.com/the_spectrum_blog/adventism_and_health/index.html

 

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