We Love Inle Lake
The forest was cool and there was a sacred atmosphere as the young people led us in deeper and showed us the shrine to honour the indigenous water spirits and the cave where the water came out of the mountain. The youth leaders were honored to take us on the long walk to the forest spring that supplies two villages with a fresh, clean water. Along the way they stopped off and sliced off bamboo shoots for a tasty curry and cut a large leaf that served as an indigenous umbrella when it started to rain. They pointed out herbs that grew naturally, mushrooms and leaves that are used as salad. The forest supermarket was open and all manner of useful items freely available.
Kalyana Mitta Foundation (KMF) in Myanmar run empowering programmes for youth on sustainable livelihood, community engagement and care for nature. In August 2016, mid term of the 3 year ‘We Love Inle Lake’ programme I visited several target villages in the Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) area and further downstream in Pekhon. It was inspiring to see how engaged the young people were after attending project activities such as a 3 month eco-farming training or shorter disaster risk reduction (DRR) and eco-social enterprise training. I also joined the inaugural event of the eco-café in Nyaung Shwe that Ecosocial Enterprise trainees and the local youth group are setting up.
Water sources drying up because of deforestation is a problem for several villages in Nyaung Shwe and Pekhon village tracts. The diversity that supplies natural food, medicines and vegetables is lost as well as an abundant water supply. The DRR training has raised awareness of the connections between deforestation and plentiful, clean water bringing renewed respect for the forest. On World Environment Day in June several groups of young people planted trees. In Kathe village where we visited the water source around 90 youth from near-by communities joined this event. A longer-term dream is to plant trees all around the village for shade and shelter from storms.
In Kyaut Nghet village upland Nyaung Shwe joyful youth in green tee shirts welcomed us with drums and cymbals as we arrived at the village after a perilous taxi ride along dirt tracks and a walk through the forest. They are part of around 40 very active youth including 3 ecofarming, 4 ecosocial enterprise and 26 DRR alumni. The young people made biscuits and raised funds for the t-shirts they proudly wore the day we arrived. The youth aged from around 15 / 30 are campaigning on plastic and active in small-scale waste management. The ecofarming alumni have started a communal village plot for organic vegetables and upland rice and the ESE alumni are planning for food processing to add value to some of their produce e.g. ginger candy, pumpkin candy.
There is no piped water to the village and the stream reduced to a muddy, dried up gully. It is a 30-minute walk away to the water source where villagers go to collect water daily and 325 children have no access to running water. There is a muddy pool in the village where people and animals bathe together. The village has been identified as one of the DRR target villages vulnerable to the risk of drought due to deforestation. A preliminary training in the village started the process of establishing a DRR plan and associated activities. The charismatic village tract leader of 8 villages is very supportive of the youth and interested in resolving the water source / supply issues for the village. He is ‘very happy the youth are so engaged working on DRR, NRM and Ecofarming that will give hope for the next generation’. The project is working in a participatory process with village leaders and youth on a proposal to the Inle Lake Trust to bring piped water to the village.
In Kontu a village in the mountains in Pekhon, San Naing an Ecofarming alumni has been inspired to change the attitudes and practices of farmers. They are now more aware of environmental issues and there is a willingness growing to move away from shifting cultivation. He is working with local villagers in 62 households to set up a 30-acre tribal community forest. The plan is for long-life plants (e.g. coffee, fruit trees, avocado etc.) this strategy will support a claim for land rights for the villagers. They are also monitoring the land to stop land grabbing and encroachment that is a real risk in these areas. A longer- term plan is organic fruit and vegetables for income generation / expenses reduction for villagers.
Konwha in Pekhon has many active alumni. At an elevation of around 1400 meters this beautiful mountain community is emerging as an ecovillage. This village has Buddhist and Christian inhabitants and the young people are joining together regardless of religion in their activities. There are now 6 young male and female farmers who have joined the 3-month ecofarming training. There is a large natural farming demonstration plot in the village abundant with beans, corn and many other crops. We picked fresh green beans from the vine and enjoyed them that evening for dinner. The group will grow long life plants and upland paddy in the longer term. They are applying eco- farming techniques using seed selection, bombing, composting and natural pest management. Upland farmers in Pekhon are already fairly chemical free so they are keen to learn and use the techniques the young farmers are doing. It is significant that all the villagers are now practicing bokhasi (fermented organic matter) composting. This kind of informal extension is an unexpected outcome of the project. That the young people are entering so enthusiastically into natural farming is a good sign for the future.
In the Inle Lake area Taungchay Demo Plot is a great example of lowland, integrated agriculture. Three of the ecofarming alumni are working together on land that belongs to one of them. Even though they started just a few months ago they are already growing 120 varieties of plants including harbor plants. This plot is at the edge of bamboo forest and the rice field in slightly raised land so it does not flood. Many tourists cycle along the road quite close to this plot and the alumni would like to invite them to see what they are doing and offer them a cup of tea and organic banana. We also dreamed of providing the eco-cafe in Nyaung Shwe with organic bananas for pancakes as tourists like banana pancakes a lot ! Other local farmers are very interested in the plot and two youth wandered up while we were talking. They are curious how they will manage the pests without chemicals – they pointed out that some of the leaves of the vegetables growing had holes in them. The young ecofarmers use some local bitter herbs as natural pesticides and some other techniques they have learned. The locals farmers are curious and may be convinced when they see healthy crops especially as the reduction in inputs will mean less expenses.
Further downstream at Puche in view of Pekhon Lake there is another demo plot of five acres of wet paddy worked by two Ecofarming alumni Lay Reh and Taw Reh. The plot is rented from the owner for 3 years for 10 bags of rice per year. The expected yield in a good year is 60 bags. This demo plot is reduced chemical rather than eco-farming as although the young farmers are not using chemicals it is in the middle of many other plots that are so there are chemicals in the water source. The two farmers will have 25 bags of rice each and 25 will be saved for the following year. The alumni could not yet convince their families to pass over their family plots to organic, naturally grown rice so this demo plot will be a chance to show them how this can be done. The other farmers in the vicinity are curious too.
In addition to all these alumni activities the project team are getting engaged in advocacy for the natural resource management of the broader watershed area. This kind of advocacy work is new to Myanmar as it opens up. The project Director Bo Bo Lwin mentioned ‘The Environmental Conservation Department in Myanmar is recently formed and it is still quite weak. So we need have a strong network of young green youth circles with ecological concept for the stronger movement in the future’
In both Inle and Pekhon Lakes there are trust funds that come from the entrance fees tourists pay and these are available for local projects that care for the environment. There has been little uptake so far as local organisations are uneasy to work with government funding. The Natural Resource Management coordinator is currently chairing a group of Civil Society Organisations in the Inle area advocating more transparency and community inclusion for Inle Trust funded projects. Downstream the Project Manager has been approached to sit on the board of Pekhon Trust Fund. In both areas there have been invitations from the trusts to KMF to submit proposals to improve natural resource management. There are also several community-based projects currently being explored that reduce expenditure, increase community self-reliance and care for environment
The visit was inspiring as the positive energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the young people is infectious. It is notable that farmers are most likely to shift to natural farming practices by observing and seeing how ecofarming works. I imagine the interest will increase as the demo plots have their first successful seasons. The farmer circles are taking a less formal approach than expected. Rather than organized meetings farmers finish their work for the day and come and share a cup of tea with the demo plot workers curious to see what is happening and what they are doing. In Pekhon where the farming particularly upland farming is already low chemical the farmers are more open to applying composting and other techniques as they can see the added value the young people are gaining with their crops. The DRR training inspired many youth towards a green agenda strengthening local youth groups and building some new ones. The young people were excited about linking with the eco café by providing fresh naturally grown produce and added value items like jam and preserves. Many are already embarking on modest natural resource management efforts in the villages with small-scale waste management and tree planting. These activities without need of outside resources are a good indication for a Green Youth Movement in Inle and Pekhon that will sustain beyond the project term.
This project is a partnership between Kalyana Mitta Foundation and Ecologia Youth Trust and is funded by the UK Big Lottery International Fund.