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In Myanmar, a Lake That Sustained Generations Feels Strains

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LONTON, Myanmar — Cresting a mountain pass on a freshly bulldozed road, Indawgyi Lake and its valley appear below, pastoral and calm.
The 300-square-mile surface, one of the largest freshwater bodies in Southeast Asia, reflects the clouds. A plaid quilt of rice paddies is squeezed between the water and jungled mountains. Widely spaced hamlets dot the shores.
Besides a few spindly cellphone towers, there are few signs of the globalization swamping Myanmar as the nation opens itself after half a century of isolation under a military dictatorship.
For centuries, the indigenous Kachin people here in Myanmar’s remote north planted rice when the lake flooded their fields during the monsoon, fished its waters and hunted its wetlands and the surrounding mountains. As Ma Thwe Thwe Win, 32, a local birding guide, explained: “The lake gives us fish, waters our fields, and brings the birds here. It is everything to my people.”
Today, every morning and afternoon, fishermen still paddle out, singing Burmese songs, trailing gillnets with soda bottle buoys. But despite the encircling mountains and buffering remoteness, Indawgyi Lake is straining under many of the same environmental and conflict-related challenges that are stressing the fragile nation.
In the mid-1990s, Myanmar’s army captured the Hpakant jadeite mine, the world’s richest, from the Kachin Independence Army, a rebel force of around 10,000 men, about 35 miles north of Indawgyi Lake. The mine was mechanized and expanded, and soon many of Indawgyi’s inhabitants had traded their native villages for squalid mining camps where heroin addiction ran rampant. Increasing commercialization of the region’s economy also led to the expansion of illegal gold mines in the mountains above Indawgyi Lake.


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