The worry behind the floating island
Written by Yu-Jong Peng/Photo by Yu-Jong Peng
Inlay Lake is the most popular tourist attraction in Burma for the Western tourists. In terms of tourism, its reputation is like Sun-Moon Lake in Taiwan. However, the area of Inlay Lake is much bigger than Sun-Moon Lake. The floating-island cultivation area on Inlay Lake is the largest hydroponics farming zone in the world. The local people spread the sediment above the floating grass to develop the “floating” cultivation area to grow the tomato and the melon. The lake is getting more and more sediment following the development of local tourism. Lots of hotels have been under construction along the lake while the agriculture has been developed and the forest has been cutting down in the surrounding mountain area. Furthermore, the overdose of chemical fertilizer and pesticide in the hydroponics farming zone causes the serious eutrophication on the lake, destroys the local ecology and makes less fishing catch figure. To protect the unique culture and local characteristic, the local people organize the protection association. Following the resources aid from the United Nations and northern European country, they set up the center of environment education and encourage the farmers to develop the organic farming. They also advocate the tourists working with the local people to ensure the sustainable development of Inlay Lake.
The most famous sight-seeing attractions in Burma are the city of pagodas Bagan and the ancient capital Mandalay. The number 3 is Inlay Lake whose position in Burmese’s mind is like Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan. The deep and extensive lake represents the purity and the beauty.
Inlay Lake is the second largest freshwater lake in Burma, located in the mountainous area at an altitude of 884 meters in Shan State and surrounded by the mountains over 1500 meters. The length of the lake is approximately 22 kilometers and the widest part is around 11 kilometers. The area of Inlay Lake is 116 square kilometers, roughly equivalent to 15 times of Sun Moon Lake, nearly the half of Taipei city.
For hundreds of thousands international travelers each year, the most attractive feature of Inlay Lake is the endless vast area, the aquatic farming that is rarely seen in the world, and the unique mountain minority culture such as the famous long neck tribe and Intha fishermen who pulled an oars with single foot. For the Burmese, around Inlay Lake area, there are countless Buddhist temples, the holy land, and two historical pagodas existed for more than eight hundred years, Phaung Taw O oand and Ah Lo Taw Pauk, where lots of Burmese make pilgrimage every year.
The major aboriginal around Inlay Lake area is the Intha who lives on and around the lake. Intha means “the people of lake.” There are many ethnic minorities in this district such as Shan, Pa – O, Tanug Yo, Danu, Kayah, Danaw, and so on. The vast Inlay Lake provides the residents with abundant food, fuel from dried waterweeds, weaving fibers from lotus stalks and aquatic plants, fishing and water resources for daily life.
Behind the peaceful lakeside scenery, the climate warming causes the lack of rainfall during the monsoon season. The lake area has been shrinking and the water level has been declined gradually. Due to the severe drought in 2010, people could not reach many villages by boat. On our arrival in April 2013, the water level of Inlay Lake is extreme low and indirectly leads to the surging price of tomato, Burmese daily food. Furthermore, the aquatic farming uses a lot of fertilizer and pesticide and thus causes the water pollution and destroys the ecology and biodiversity in the lake. More than one-hundred thousand tourists every year attract lots of hotel investment. The development of the surrounding hillsides and waterfront accelerates the soil erosion and sediment, which aggravates the crisis of Inlay Lake.
The Intha tribe relies on the lake for livelihood and their life has been affected seriously. Farmers have no longer the stable harvest and fishermen are not able to catch the fish.
Tomato Cultivation Center- Floating-Island Agriculture
The major vegetable around Inlay Lake area is the tomato. The production around Inlay Lake also supplies the demands in lower Burma and Yangon. The wooden cases full of vegetable at the wholesale market Thiri Mingalar Market in Yangon are supplied from Inlay Lake area. (Please see “Go to Burmese Market (Part 1)”)Green tomatoes have not yet ripen and people put them aside temporarily.
Inlay Lake is the largest hydroponics farming zone in the world. Since the 1960s, the local people have taken the sediment constantly and spread it above the floating grass to develop the “floating” cultivation area and fixed the area by water-tolerant bamboos. Farmers often plant the tomato and the melon on the floating islands. The islands have the value and can be traded, just like the land. They can even be divided into different parts. The buyer can drift the part they bought by boat and fix it with his own floating island.
The sediment of floating island cannot provide enough nutrients to grow the tomato for such large area. Farmers have to rely on lots of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to ensure their production and income. Nyaung Shwe City, which means “the golden banyan tree in Burmese”, is the major city in the north of Inlay Lake and the distribution center of aquatic-farming tomatoes. When we walk along Yone Gyi road at Nyaung Shwe, we can see the advertisement of fertilizer and pesticide made by pesticide shops and large agricultural corporate such as AWBA.
Even if the lake is in the remote area, there are eight agricultural equipment shops displaying pesticide and fertilizer along the road in a small town.
“Our lake and the tribe face a serious problem,” explained by the agricultural economist of Inntha literature, culture, and regional development association U Tha Doe. In recent years, Inlay Lake has some major problems, including the shrinking lake area, serious water pollution (owing to the excessive usage of Aldrin, a kind of organochlorine pesticide and DDT), the shallow lake caused by the increasing sediment, and the crop yield dropped owing to the water pollution. The serious water pollution also affects the residents’ health. However, the number of tourists and hotel construction will be increased considerably following Burmese economic reform. U Tha Doe expresses his concern while smoking.
The agricultural economist of Intha literature, culture, and regional development association U Tha Doe talks about the crisis of Inlay Lake in front of the Environment Education Center sponsored by Norwegian government and the United Nations.
The 35-years-old farmer U Phyo Aung has been in the industry for more than ten years. Just like most Intha people, he earns his life mainly by growing tomatoes. He also grows cucumbers, beans, okras, strawberries and so on. He said that the water pollution and the overdose of pesticide have already threatened his family’s life and health condition. He hopes that the shift to sustainable agriculture or organic farming can help improve the environment.
After 1-hour navigation, we visited the tomato farmer U Phyo Aung’s stilt house at Mye Ne Gone village on the west of Inlay Lake. At his clean and simple living room on the second floor, we can see some cartons of the United Nations Development Program. U Phyo Aung explained that the UN delivered some drug during the malaria prevalence a few years ago.
The 35-years-old farmer U Phyo Aung has been in the industry for more than ten years. Just like most Intha people, he earns his life mainly by growing tomatoes. He also grows cucumbers, beans, okras, strawberries and so on. He talked about his experience that in 2013, the tomato production decreased owing to the water shortage. Although the price has been surged, the farmer’s income has not been improved a lot due to less production output. The cost of essential materials is more and more expensive. For example, the water-tolerant bamboo applied to fix the floating islands and make the tomato vine climb can only be taken from the lower Burma in the south and the price has been increased a lot recently. In 2013, the price was up to 2500 kyat (nearly US$2) per piece. The farmer needs to use more than one hundred pieces of bamboo to fix a floating island, which is a heavy financial burden for a farmer.
The problem of agricultural pest such as apple snails is getting serious and the farmer needs to use more pesticide. However, most farmers cannot afford the cost of chemical nitrogen fertilizer. Some people give up the farming and buy or rent the ship to pick up the tourists.
U Phyo Aung said optimistically that those who can possess the land or the floating islands for the cultivation have relatively the stable life. People are even poor on the southern part of the lake and they can only rely on fishing. However, fishermen’s life is getting more and more difficult owing to the excessive growth of water hyacinth and the invasion of non-native fish species.
After listening what U Phyo Aung said, I do think that it is the Burmese version of prairie tragedy. People take the public poverty such as the natural resources of Inlay Lake for granted and for free since a long time. And the excessive usage has drained off the natural resources gradually. Finally, the victim is the aboriginal who depends on the lake for their daily life.
Save Inlay Lake: International, Local and the Young
As the local people are aware that the deterioration of Inlay Lake will destroy the Intha ethnic and the culture, they formed a number of local associations to work with the international organization to promote the restoration.
For example, Intha Literature, Culture, and Regional Development Association worked with Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF), Norwegian government and the Institute of International Development in 2012 to plan out the lake conservation programs till 2025. The program includes the reforestation in the surrounding area, the control of tourist growth and quantity, the training to help the farmers develop the organic farming and select the appropriate cash corps, for example the pitaya with less water and fertilizer, and the biodiversity restoration of the lake. “Sustaining the lake to sustain the community.” The chairman of Intha Literature, Culture, and Regional Development Association U Tet Tun imagines and plans the future for this lake and his tribe at the new environmental education center of Inlay Lake.
On the night train from Inlay Lake to Mandalay, before the soap opera has been played on the coach, the driver plays a music video “Save the Inlay Lake”. A young Intha band Inn Thwe Thit points out the crisis of Inlay Lake through image and song. When the resident and the young are aware of the miserable status of the land and ethic and they are ready to work with the international organization, they might be able to reverse the prairie tragedy in one day.