Khaung Tong Creek was a 1.5-meter deep, pristine creek some 10 years ago, but these days this important tributary of Kachin State’s famed Indawgyi Lake is just a little stream some 10 cm deep, filled with red-brownish mud.
Local villagers said years of unregulated gold mining several kilometres away has caused the environmental degradation as dumped waste and chemicals has flowed into the stream.
“The water in this creek was clean when I was young, but it has turned into a muddy stream. Groups of gold miners can be found upstream of the creek. It is threatening Indawgyi Lake’s environment,” Yan Khaung, a native of the area and a local coordinator for Myanmar branch of UK-based Fauna and Flora International, told me during a recent visit to the lake in northern Myanmar.
Conservationists and local villagers said the country’s largest lake is under threat from a gold mining free-for-all in the area, which - as at so many mining sites in Myanmar - has been come with heavy environmental impacts and social problems.
The ongoing conflict between the army and ethnic rebels in Kachin state, they say, is hampering efforts to protect the lake and bring in international support for conservation of the lake.
A UNIQUE, BIODIVERSE LAKE
Yet, Indawgyi’s remoteness and lack of population pressure has left it in a much better state than Shan State’s well-known Inle Lake, where deforestation and the rapid of growth of agriculture and tourism has put a severe strain on the lake’s ecosystem.
Indawgyi’s unique features have long been recognised domestically and internationally, and in recent years efforts to protect it have gathered steam.
Fauna and Flora International (Myanmar) has been running conservation programmes around the lake since 2010 that focus on compiling the data on the bird species at Indawgyi and biodiversity issues at the area. In February 2014, Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry submitted a proposal with UNESCO to register Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary as an ecological World Heritage Site.
Located in Monyin Township, Kachin State, the lake is 24 km long and 10 km wide.
Since 1999, the lake has been part of Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, an area covering some 736 square kilometres that encompasses large swathes of wetlands, hills and deciduous and evergreen forest that surround the lake, according to the submission available on UNESCO’s website.
It is an important bird area and a watershed that supports a number of globally threatened wildlife species.
The sanctuary, the submission says, “provides habitat for 10 globally threatened bird species and is of outstanding value for the conservation of migrating waterbirds. The White-rumped Vulture and Slender-billed Vulture have been reported,” two species that have declined dramatically in other parts of the world.
The lake also is home to endemic species such as the Burmese Peacock Turtle and three fish species. A total of 448 bird, 41 reptile, 34 amphibian, 64 fish, and 50 butterfly species have been found, according to the submission, which notes that there could be more species as no fish survey has been conducted at the lake since 1920.
Endangered and vulnerable mammal species found around the lake include the Asian Elephant, Bengal Slow Loris, Clouded Leopard and Himalayan Black Bear.
During my visit to Indawgyi Lake, I went to MaingNaung village, located beside Khaung Tong Creek, to find out more about the gold mining that had ravaged the stream. I saw a number of noisy bulldozers and other heavy machinery being operated near the stream, but I was unable to approach the site because a local guide warned me that visitors were not allowed to wander around these gold mining sites.
The UNESCO submission notes that the sanctuary is threatened by hydraulic and small-scale gold mining to the west of the lake, where it is “located along streams that flow into the lake. Elevated mercury levels and increased sedimentation in the lake have been documented. The regional government is considering what to do with these mines.”
According to Yan Khaung from Fauna and Flora International, mining has become an important source of income for some locals, while it also attracts impoverished migrant workers from across the region. Among the miners, he said, drug addiction is common, much like at Hpakant’s notorious jade mines.
“Many groups of miners can be found at the upstream of this (Khaung Tong) creek. Many illegal items, including narcotic drugs, can be bought there as it is a lawless area,” he said, adding that some of these groups also carry out illegal logging in the area.
The wildlife sanctuary is home to a total 39 villages, 20 of which are situated on the lake’s shores.
According to the UNESCO site, there some 35,000 people living around the lake. Most villagers are Kachin and Red Shan (also known as Taileng) ethnic minorities, who live off farming and fishing, but are not traditionally hunters.
“We do not catch the birds here, not because of official warnings but because of our regular practices. So, the birds are not afraid of humans. We also limit fishing during the fish breeding season,” said Myo Aung, who lives in Lone Ton Village on the banks of lake.
CONFLICT HINDERS CONSERVATION
Indawgyi Lake is located some 30 km away from the nearest army base and though there are some troops stationed near the lake, locals say the road to the lake runs through an area where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has a strong presence. The nearby mountains are under KIA control and due to a lack of security, government soldiers enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew on local roads.
Kachin villagers said they dislike the army as it turns its suspicion on to the Kachin population any time there is a clash or incident with the KIA.
“The military is likely to assume our Kachin people have an affiliation with the KIA. Whenever any conflict happens, Kachin people are summoned for questioning,” said a Kachin villager, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from the army. “We always have to pray that no fighting breaks out here between the KIA and the government troops.”
The unstable security situation and lack of government regulation of gold mining operations are undermining Myanmar’s bid to get Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary listed as a Word Heritage site, said Htay Win, an officer working at the sanctuary, as UNESCO requires certain conservation measures are put in place before a site can be listed.
The sanctuary will be reviewed this year for becoming a UNESCO-protected biosphere area under the organisation’s Man and the Biosphere Programme, which could mobilise technical support for the lake’s conservation, according to Htay Win.
“But we have many difficulties to implement development programmes due to the gold mines and armed groups. These situations are hampering our proposal to international associations in seeking recognition of Indawgyi Lake as a World Heritage site,” he said.
My visit to Indawgyi Lake made me realise that it offers a valuable lesson on the importance of improving governance of Myanmar’s rich natural heritage and how a successful peace process could help both man and nature.