Sanctuary Under ThreatPublished by MAC on 2006-10-11
Sanctuary Under Threat
By Khun Sam, The Irawaddy
11th October 2006
A wildlife heritage site in Kachin State is being plundered for profit, say environmentalists
One of Southeast Asia's biggest and oldest lakes-set in a supposedly protected area of northern Burma-is being ruined, warn environmentalists.
Lake Indawgyi in Kachin State "faces threats from pollution, unsustainable fishing methods, and the hunting of water birds and large mammals," says Asean's Regional Center for Biodiversity Conservation. "Local forests are threatened by clearing for agriculture, timber and by forest fire."
The lake is on Asean's Heritage Sites list, but the Manila-based body, which is supported by the European Union and several environmental groups, says the wildlife sanctuary is being abused and plundered.
The military junta has condoned logging of the forested lakeside hills that are part of the 300-square-mile sanctuary, permitted an expansion of mining for gold, and auctioned off sections of the lake to large companies who fish indiscriminately with impunity.
Hkawn Bu* grew up in Na Mawn, one of 20 villages dotted around the 15-mile-long lake and remembers the big fish that were pulled out of the water when she was a girl. But it is hard to catch fish now, she says. "Big fish are not available. If we want to host a ceremony, we have to order fish from lower Burma," Hkawn Bu told The Irrawaddy.
Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary was established by Burma's military-run government in 1999, supposedly to conserve the rich animal, bird and fish life and help promote eco-tourism.
But the authorities parcel out sections of the lake for three-year terms to large fishing companies in return for fees, say local observers.
Environmentalists say the lake was home to 200 species of fish, as well as turtles, while the surrounding woodland sheltered 120 species of birds. The Asean organization says increasingly rare elephants, leopards, golden cats, sunbeam, the goat-like serow, and rhinoceroses, some of which are on endangered lists, were known to wander the hinterland forests.
But various international bodies now believe the plant and wildlife is being irreparably damaged by lack of the very thing the sanctuary status was meant to provide-protection.
Brang Gam,* a community worker and lakeside resident who has been carrying out research on the Indawgyi for years, said some fish that were once popular have become rare, and some migratory birds that relied on the lake are now hardly seen. "By implementing the auction fishing system, fish are caught and sold regardless of their size or the spawning season," he said.
Fishing companies also seek to catch other valuable lake wildlife, including hard and soft-shelled turtles and crocodiles, said Brang Gam. These are illegally traded to China for use in traditional medicine, he said.
Shifting slash-and-burn hill agriculture practiced by some local people over the years has contributed to environmental damage. "Logging has taken place here since I was a child. Now woods near my village are gone," said Hkawn Bu. "They are now cutting down trees far away from here like Mai Nawng and Lung Tung areas [5 to 10 miles away]," she said.
But Brang Gam alleges that the "main felon" is mismanagement by local government authorities who have auctioned off every form of natural resource, allowing a handful of businesspeople to exploit the area for quick profit.
Probably the worst examples of this are the gold mining concessions handed out by the authorities. Kachin State is noted for its gold but environmentalists say an increase in the number of mines close to the lake is causing contamination.
Mercury is a by-product of gold mining and might have leaked into creeks that feed into the lake, but there is also some evidence that cyanide is being used as a means of extracting gold more efficiently from the ground, says the Thailand-based NGO Pan Kachin Development Society.
A report by the society said most of the mining in Kachin State is done by Chinese companies who often bring their own equipment and workers.
"Northern Star and Sea Sun Star are the largest of around ten companies operating in Kachin State," says the report. "They have large concessions in the Indawgyi area, where permits are given for one to three years, allowing a company to mine or sell mining rights to an area of land or stretch of the Indaw creek which flows into the Indawgyi Lake."
Brang Gam said sediment is starting to build up in some parts of the lake.
"Sand is building up and making the lake narrower. If no one reacts to this degeneration of the environment I think the lake won't last long. It will not be useful apart from being able to drive around in a boat."
Hkawn Bu adds: "I feel like our nature is gone and everything seems strange compared to my childhood. I think it is time for someone or a group to work on this issue to protect this."
Burma is a signatory to the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity, supported by more than 150 countries as a commitment to promoting sustainable development.
The UN citation reads: "The Convention recognizes that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems-it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live."
In May last year Burma also ratified the supplementary UN protocol on biosafety, which seeks "the prevention of large-scale loss of biological integrity, focusing both on ecology and human health."
Such terms might not mean much to the lakeside villagers, but they are the very people the convention is intended to protect. "It has been years since I last ate Lapi," lamented Hkawn Bu, referring to an indigenous Indawgyi fish that was once an appetizing staple for the villagers around the lake. The fish has not been seen for several years.
* Not their real names