Bringing Communities Together through Conservation

 Shwe Taung Pagoda and Ton San Kha Village lie to the far north of the lake. (Map courtesy of Inn Chit Thu/FFI and artist Y. M. Adhimiharja)

Shwe Taung Pagoda and Ton San Kha Village lie to the far north of the lake. (Map courtesy of Inn Chit Thu/FFI and artist Y. M. Adhimiharja)

 

 

With so much happening at the lake, it's like we are always playing a game of catch up trying to figure out all the different projects going on.

A few weeks ago, we learned about Fauna and Flora International's (FFI) new effort to bring organic rice farming to Indawgyi and naturally wanted to see it for ourselves. They aim to achieve official organic certification in two years for the current 14 pilot farmers and increase participants to over 1,000 in the next five years.

With more than a few rice fields around Indawgyi, the Forest Department was kind enough to lend us the services of one of their rangers, Tin Naing Win, for the day. We rented a boat and headed north. 

Ton San Kha is located a couple miles north of the famous Shwe Taung (Gold Mountain). After an hour crawling across the lake in the midday sun, we had arrived near Shwe Taung Pagoda.

We slipped along muddy paths until we found the pagoda's caretaker who offered us bananas, tea, and a place in the shade while our ranger asked him what the best way to get to the village is. Rainy season truly changes the geography of the lake. The water hyacinth and other plants along the lake's edges grow quickly and monstrously thick, so routes between the water and the shoreline become very difficult to find. Our boat was too large for the narrow path into Ton San Kha so we were left with only one option—walking. 

During dry season, this would be a fairly pleasant stroll through the forest. But rainy season had created a new geography to tangle with. Through fifty shades of ankle and knee deep mud, we trekked barefoot in the searing sun the canopy did little to mitigate (the rain that has caused this mud was unfortunately everywhere around the lake, but here). After a very long hour, we finally emerged into a clearing and saw the wide expanse of rice fields. 

At the local stream-fed well, we did our best to clean our mud-soaked clothes and bodies. As it turned out, Ranger Tin Naing Win did not actually know the precise location nor anyone involved directly with the organic farming, but after he inquired at a few different homes, we were led upstairs and offered coffee and fermented tea-leaf salad and got to chat with a local family who is currently involved in both sustainable rice and tree farming. 

We are always curious about who lives around the lake. The family told us they were Shan-ni (Tai-Laing). The grandmother also said she had been living and farming in the village for over sixty years. They then took us on a tour of where the trees and the rice grow.  We then noticed something. In our group, we had two Shan farmers, one Kachin recent graduate, and one Kachin forest ranger who worked for the Myanmar government. The Shan, the Kachin, and the government have had a lengthy history of problems with each other. But in our group, everyone was telling stories, talking about their families, and laughing. 

That's the whole point of the work that FFI, Inn Chit Thu, Friends of Wildlife, the forest rangers and every other group at the lake is trying to do. The environment is something we all share, and conservation is a way of bringing people together. The organic rice farms are still in their trial stages, but this cooperation is a sign of what can happen when we realize we all need to protect this special place. 

After we saw the rice field, the farmer found us a small boat we could take back to ours. We cruised through the shifting plants, waved goodbye and headed over to Lon Sant. As usual U Zaw Win, was buoyant as ever and joked about Stephen not waving when we passed by him earlier (knowing well it's impossible to see much of anything in the noontime sun).

We got some more sustainable trashcans and headed home. What we had expected to take a couple hours had been more than 7 hours in the sun, mud and maybe even a leech or two. And we couldn't have been happier about it. 

 

Stephen Traina-Dorge