INLE LAKE, Myanmar — The tranquil waters of this highland lake are flanked by high mountains and in the mists of dawn there is a quality of light and a quiet serenity that many visitors describe as mystic.
On Inle Lake a unique, centuries-old civilization has flourished. There are small villages along the banks with Buddhist temples, one-hut schools and bustling markets. Many houses rest on stilts above the waterline. There are floating vegetable farms. And the fishermen propel long, wooden skiffs by balancing at the back of the boat and wrapping their leg around a single oar as they push through the still waters with a unique motion that has become the symbol of the local Intha tribe.
The country’s second-largest freshwater lake, a candidate for World Heritage Site status, Inle Lake is a complex ecosystem. It is ranked among Myanmar’s top tourist destinations, but under a military regime spurned by much of the world, visitors were rare. Then, three years ago, when a civilian government replaced a half century of iron-fisted rule, change in Myanmar — and the lake — began to accelerate.
Tourist hotels are already mushrooming on once-pristine shorelines and 617 acres of farmland have recently been razed for a special zone to include 16 more hotels. The tourism boom is eroding traditional lifestyles of the local tribes and adding to already serious water pollution from overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by farmers.
Situated in Shan State in eastern Myanmar, the lake is also being battered by a web of other woes. Dumped into its waters is toxic waste from a coal mine and power plant along with sedimentation as impoverished villagers denude the mountain slopes of forest cover. The resulting fall in water levels and several years of poor rainfall, believed to stem from climate change, has shrunk the originally 100-square-mile lake by a third. Fears have been voiced that one day it may simply vanish.
For years, even as signs of deterioration became evident, the ruling military did little or nothing but exploit the lake’s revenue potential. Following the advent of a civilian government in 2010, a five-year plan was drawn up with United Nations and Norwegian government support to reverse environmental degradation and uplift the lives of the local community.
But the opening up of the domestic economy and Myanmar’s door to the outside world has also sparked the oft-witnessed race between development and preservation.
“Inle Lake is like our parents. And when our mother and father get sick, we need to cure them,” said U Myo Myint, a lakeside dweller who has switched to organic farming. “But we still have time to heal this place. We still have hope.”
It’s morning at the pier in Nyaung Shwe, and boats are already being loaded with foreign tourists in a flurry of dark sunglasses, bright t-shirts and backpacks. Powerful engines are ignited and the flotilla sets off on another daily lake tour, the boats trailing yellowish sprays in their wakes.
Nearby, Yone Gyi Street is also abuzz. Here you can drink a beer or an espresso, book airline tickets or get a pre-tour shave at “Hair Cat.” If you are a local, there are stores selling construction tools and pesticides, both much in use these days. A recently built hotel, the Inn Star, stands immediately next to — and one story higher than — a Buddhist pagoda, something regarded as a sacrilege. Piles of sand and pebbles lie in front of a still unnamed hotel under construction, where Ko Loon Aung passes a cement-filled bucket to a fellow worker above him laying bricks.
“I like working here. This is another source of my income,” says the 30-year-old member of the Intha ethnic minority whose pay was raised a week earlier to 4,000 kyat ($4) a day — about double the national average of less than two dollars. “In the past, there was no place to work. Now there’s a lot of construction. They hire a lot of people.”
The income helps support his two children, but it isn’t yet enough, so he still keeps to his old occupation of growing rice, corn and sugar cane.
It’s been a different story for U Yan Way, 57, whose home and three acres of family land — the total assets of his life — were grabbed to build the new hotel zone seven months ago. His pea and sesame fields were bulldozed to become a road. A company has promised him 900,000 kyat ($900) in compensation, which he says is not enough to buy a cow. He has been forced to take his 17-year-old son out of school to work at a hotel construction site so that the family can eat.
“I don’t know whether this is development or not. It is just a bad thing for us,” he says. “Tourists coming in might be good for the government, but it’s not for poor people like us.”
With 120,000 visitors descending on the lake in 2012, a 50 percent increase over the previous year, the question of tourism — blessing or curse — hangs over Inle.
A report last year by the Australia-based Institute for International Development warned that the tourism influx would have a “negative impact on the livelihoods of ethnic communities making up the population of the lake region, endanger the health of the lake ecosystem and degrade the natural and cultural resources which form the attractions to tourists.”
The 40 hotels in place and many more under way have clearly created new job opportunities. But most locals are employed as low-paid, unskilled labor while more lucrative and rewarding posts go to outsiders, mostly from Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, and other parts of Myanmar. Daw Tin Tin Yee, owner of the Shwe Intha Hotel, maintains that 70 percent of tourism income in the area flows back to local people.
Given the poorly enforced environmental laws and widespread corruption in Myanmar, the seemingly unbridled tourism development is adding to the lake’s other environmental troubles, and the industry does not seem to be doing much to stem them.
“Hotels should really contribute some inputs into protecting Inle Lake. They are making a lot of profit from it. Until now, no hotel has contributed anything,” says U Win Myint, the state minister for Intha affairs.
And as farmers and fishermen turn away from their traditional occupations, ancient local festivals are geared to visitors and the general economy is transformed, Inle Lake’s special culture stands in danger of fragmentation. The occupational shifts, invariably sparked by dreams of higher incomes and better lives as well as the environmental changes, are accelerating.
Former fisherman Ko Ni Win now works as a hand on one of the tourist boats, making more money. “Fishing is not okay. Less fish nowadays,” he says. “Farming is also not okay. Less rainfall now.”
U Aung, who still fishes, voices another problem. Tourists “just disturb my business,” he says.
Fifteen-year-old Mg Nyein Chan Aung hopes the tourism boom will launch him on a bright career as a chef. Quitting school to help his family — his father was paralyzed a decade ago — he found a job at the Nice Restaurant in his native lakeside village of Nan Pam. He earns a basic salary of 26,000 kyat ($26) a month, almost double that in the high tourist season.
“This restaurant teaches me everything,” he says. “From cooking to English.”
“I’ve only caught one fish until now,” said U Aung after six hours of casting his net. “It’s just too hard to catch fish nowadays.”
At high noon, the thin, wrinkled 62-year-old man rested on his old boat, the blue mountains of the Shan hills in the background, an idyllic scene. His clothes traditional, the broad-brimmed Intha hat protecting his face from the sun and long pants rolled up to his thighs, he still had five hours on the water ahead of him.
“When I was 12, I got almost 15 viss (54 pounds of fish) by noon. So I went home. I didn’t fish all day,” he said. “The past three years have been the worst. Very low water.”
His profession appears to be dying, but unlike others, he said he had no plans to seek a different skill.
“Fishing is the only thing I’m good at,” he said.
Inle Lake was once teeming with aquatic life, home to nearly 30 species of fish and snails, many of them endemic, but The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) now lists the lake’s biodiversity status as “vulnerable.”
Daw Khin, 66, stood in front of a fish monger in Inn Tine Village, saying he didn’t need to read the environmental reports because in the past she would pay 2,500 kyat ($2.50) for the same amount of fish that now cost 4,000 ($4).
“Fish are getting scarce. I can’t buy many now,” she said, speculating that the cause is a sharp drop in rainfall.
Despite new jobs in the tourism industry, fishing and agriculture remain the mainstays for a growing population of some 170,000 Intha people living on the lake, as well as the area’s other ethnic minorities, most of whose waste ends up in the water.
Often grown on floating islands, the tomato is the king of the crops, considered to be the finest in the country and even exported to neighboring Thailand. Visitors flock to eat the lake’s heavenly tomato salad.
Along with other vegetables, tomatoes are grown on small, swaying blocks of solidified soil and vegetation anchored to the lake bed. Fertilizers and pesticides, used by the majority of farmers in ever-greater quantities, seep easily into the water.
“I have to use more fertilizer than before. Last year, I it was one bag for one floating garden. Now, I have to use one-and-a-half,” said Ma Htay Htay Win, mud caking both her hands as she stopped working on the tomato beds at one of the 11 islands owned by the family.
The 28-year-old farmer admitted to an abundant use of fertilizer — some 145 pounds every 10 days for their islands — but he said he didn’t believe it was disturbing the lake’s delicate ecosystem.
“It has nothing to do with it. We’ve always been farming. People in the hills cut the trees. So sediment is turned up and flows into the lake. That’s why the water is low,” she said.
Ko Zaw Myo Win, another lake farmer, is also defensive: “We have to use fertilizer and also pesticide. If we don’t, the tomatoes will be very small and nobody will buy them.”
The road to Myay Phyu village snakes up into the mountains above Inle Lake, an isolated settlement of the Pa-O ethnic minority. It’s a close-knit community, with families lending help to one another whenever needed, and warmly welcoming to foreigners.
But Myay Phyu, like other mountainside villages, depends on the once-lush forests to build homes and cook food. There are two hydroelectric dams in the area but the electricity they generate is funneled off to other parts of Myanmar. And as the village population of 80 families expands and new fields have to be cleared for crops, the surrounding forest is contracting.
“We have to find and cut trees every day. We need them every day. Now, the trees are not big like before. Maybe because of the rain. The rainfall is less and less. That’s become obvious in the last six years,” said 61-year-old U Loon, sitting in her kitchen and dressed in her black tribal wear and multi-colored turban.
When asked whether she is worried about the forest just vanishing one day, she replied,”I don’t know. I can cook only when I have wood.”
U Tin Maung Win, who heads the area’s Forest Department, sees the bigger picture: Inle Lake’s watershed is 13 miles deep and logging within it loosens the soil, tumbling it into the increasingly murky and shallow lake, warming the water and otherwise creating an environment harmful to aquatic life.
He was also sympathetic, saying, “Everything needs to be balanced. We just can’t preserve forests and neglect the people. They need to live, cook and eat.”
But he draws a line.
A letter posted on the wall of his office reads, “The Forest Department will not accept any proposals for coal mine projects.”
One was started within the watershed in 2002 as a joint venture between the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation and two Myanmar companies, growing into the country’s largest open cast coal mine and coal power plant. According to the Thailand-based Pa-O Youth Organization, which conducted two years of research, the project generates up to 150 tons of toxic waste a day, much of it eventually finding its way into Inle.
The latest scientific study of the lake’s water quality, conducted in 2007 by Yangon University’s Department of Zoology, concluded that Inle was undergoing eutrophication, the presence of excessively rich nutrients from runoffs which cause dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen. The levels of phosphates and nitrates, prime components of chemical fertilizers, was found to be above acceptable World Health Organization levels — 20 milligrams of phosphate per one liter of water or four times the standard for safe drinking water. Arsenic was detected in one of the streams, named Tale-U, flowing into the lake.
The forestry chief says local resources are limited and outside assistance is needed to cope with the welter of ills. Some has come, notably a five-year government partnership with the United Nations, backed by $2.6 million from Norway.
It includes reforestation, waste management, supply of organic fertilizer and environmental education.
But what is crucial, says Project Manager U Htun Paw Oo, are the local people: “They know the value of the lake and this is more important than what the government, the UN or NGOs do.”
Many were well aware of Inle Lake’s changing face.
“I’m worried for the future. I feel sorry when I think of the lake dying,” said Ma Sandar, the Intha owner of the Nice Restaurant. “Inle Lake is the source of pride for us all. There is nothing to compare with Inle.”
GlobalPost reporting fellows Kaye Lin and Lin Sun Oo contributed to this report.
For more about the Special Report from GlobalPost co-founder and editor-at-large Charles M. Sennott, as well as a three-minute video about the project filmed in Myanmar, please visit GroundTruth in Burma.