Friday 9 January 2015

The Forgotten Floating Farms of Inle Lake

Last week I visited Inle Lake in the mountainous region of the Shan State in Myanmar. The Shan State is as diverse geographically as it is culturally; with several ethnic groups and many sub-groups calling the region home. The drive to Inle Lake from Mandalay, although long, was incredibly stunning. The changing landscape form dry arid lands, to cool mountain ranges proves how diverse Myanmar can be. 

Nestled in the Shan Mountains, Inle Lake is home to the Intha people who live in towns and villages around the lake. They are predominantly agriculturalists and fishermen who follow Bhuddism with traditional elements of animism, and because of this are extremely resourceful. As well as producing all their own food, most Intha also grow their own bamboo for building and maintaining their unique stilt houses that sit by or on the water’s edge. 

I organised an early morning boat ride for the following day to see the lake at sun rise. The silhouettes of fishermen amongst the misty mountains was breathtaking, and made the early start well worth it. I was told that a unique practice to the Intha fishermen is their method of rowing their small narrow boats, which involves wrapping one leg around a paddle to exert force whilst standing up, although, there seems to be no obvious explanation for this practice.

Intha fishermen rowing with their feet

Once the sun was in the sky, I aksed to visit the infamous floating farms on the lake, which can be seen in the shallower parts of the lake, mainly in and around the villages that lie to the west of the lake. I was told the floating farms were created by digging up weeds from the deeper parts of the lake using large baskets attached to long sticks. The weeds are taken back to shallower waters, where they are spread out into narrow strips along with water hyacinth so that they float and are anchored down with bamboo sticks to hold them in place. This backbreaking process creates a natural floating platform on which to grow fruit and vegetables that is fed by the natural flows of nutrients from the fresh water lake and are resistant to flooding as they move with the changing water levels. The floating farms allow for enough space in between strips so that the farmers can tend to their plants from their narrow canal boats. They can also be cut, moved and sold as pieces of land, which makes them an especially attractive livelihood income.

Floating gardens used to create boundaries for stilted houses on the river

I was amazed by the vastness of the farms, how they sprawled and seemed never ending, especially from the perspective of a low canal boat. I had read about the farms before visiting, but had no idea how much of the water they actually covered. Interestingly, they seemed to be two distinctively different uses for the farms: floating gardens/farms can be used to create boundaries for stilted houses in the villages (above image), whilst farmers owning larger floating farms would live on stilted housing near their farm (below image).  I was conscious of the fact that most of these larger farms were overgrown and unkept. 

Larger floating farm, anchored with bamboo sticks

On returning home, I researched the floating farms and found out that despite their potential, they are now becoming a serious problem as abandoned farms begin to encroach on the surface area of the lake. The farms have now covered 34% of the lake since 1960. It is not so much the floating gardens around the houses that have proved to be problematic, rather, the larger strips of farm that have become neglected causing them to over grow and become surrounded by water hyacinth, blocking all light from reaching the water’s surface and making it impossible for life to exist in these parts of the lake. These areas become undesirable for fish, as there is little food for them to eat, which ultimately disrupts the natural flow of nutrients in the lake.

Overgrown and neglected floating farm

There lacks a great deal of information and data on the floating farms, so it is hard to get a picture of where the root of the problem lies. My guess is a combination of factors: what was once a profitable income, has now been abandoned for the even more attractive emerging tourism industry in the area that is proving to be a great deal more profitable. Although the floating gardens have the potential to help the Intha communities to be food secure and adaptive to climate change, the influx of tourists and their fancy hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops undeniably bring in more household income annually from only half a years work. With tourism comes other issues for the community, including land grabbing for prime hotel locations, pollution from hotels and tourist boats, the homogenisation of local culture as people flock to work in the area, as well as the financial dependency on an unreliable market. The lake and the Intha community are far from ready for the sudden influx of tourists, and this is reflected in the dilapidated farms that make up a large area of the lake.

Unless there are tight environmental regulations are enforced on tourism to protect the fragile ecosystem of the lake and the unique livelihoods of the Intha people, Inle Lake could become another Thailand; a cheap holiday haven at the cost of cultural and natural diversity. I hope one day these farms will be brought back into productivity as not only do they have the potential to help the Intha adapt to climate change, but they are also a unique practice. 

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