High in the mountains that surround Indawgyi, you can find farms on the sides of slopes, on top of mountain ridges and even in some valleys that no car or motorbike could ever reach. There are all kinds of terms used to describe these varying practices that fall broadly under the practice of mountain cultivation.
Some farmers, take advantage of forest cover and naturally occurring plants to be used as a base to begin fruit tree plantations. Pomelos, oranges, limes, lemons, peppers, mangos, dragon fruits, bananas and so many others are just a few examples of the amazing diversity of species grown here. The farmer we met with is originally from Nam Mun, but left the hustle and bustle of Indawgyi largest village over twenty years ago. He goes down regularly to sell his fruit which can yield around 100,000 kyat (1,000 kyat=.75 USD) per tree, but spends most of the time in his little mountain hut or among his plants.
Getting higher into the mountains, a different practice is more commonplace. For countless generations, Kachin groups in the area have utilized shifting cultivation techniques to create temporary homesteads high above. Typically an area of land is cleared and a new plantation is formed that will last for a few years until the ground becomes unproductive. Then that land is let to go fallow returning to a more natural state and a new area is cleared. This system has been used around the world since the dawn of agriculture.
Shifting cultivation has been a controversial topic among environmental movements and indigenous groups. Large Scale deforestation in Myanmar and other developing nations has been blamed on this practice. In reality, the situation is much more complex. As with anything in Myanmar, things are rarely black and white.
The ultimate question is where do you draw the line? Shouldn’t people who have lived in these hills for countless years be able to use the resources from them? The answer is logically a yes, but when outside forces encourage larger scale deforestation then it gets more complicated. The same people who might be clearing some land for a farm might be also employed in the off-season to work in illegal timber operations.
Recently, there has been an increase of law enforcement presence in the mountains to try to curb certain kinds of activities. That said, the forces are quite small while the territories they patrol are incredibly large. In addition, even with increased awareness and enforcement, these areas still feel far from any governmental force. Myanmar’s largest lake, can barely be seen in the distance while high up in the hills and you feel like you are almost in another country up there.
Even inside the valley, if you ask any carpenter, construction worker or artisan in any village, chances are the wood they are getting is likely from within the Reserve Forest (i.e. illegal). There’s no immediate solution to these issues. Focusing on Indawgyi as a wildlife sanctuary and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a good start, but any actions taken to remedy environmental problems should also account for community livelihoods so that they can be long-lasting and truly sustainable.
If you are interested in exploring some of these mountain farms, a guide can take you into the forests from Nam Mun Village. You may actually be able to meet some of the people we interviewed and try out some incredibly fresh fruit.