Inle Lake Inscribed as Unesco ‘Biosphere Reserve’

By Zarni Mann 11 June 2015

MANDALAY — Burma’s famed Inle Lake was designated this week as the country’s premier Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, much to the satisfaction of local environmentalists working to conserve and promote sustainable development around the iconic reservoir.

The UN cultural agency, Unesco, added Inle Lake to a list of 651 biosphere reserves in 120 countries, stating that the designation is “one of the main international tools to develop and implement sustainable development approaches in a wide variety of contexts.”

Burma’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MoECAF), with support from the Norwegian government and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), successfully nominated the site during an ongoing summit in Paris.

Biosphere reserves are “experimental sites” comprising terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems, according to Unesco. The agency’s website describes the sites as “special places for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems.”

Win Myo Than, managing director of the environmental group EcoDev, told The Irrawaddy that recognizing the lake as a reserve is likely to encourage responsible investment in the area, which is fast becoming one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

“It is good news. Conservation of the environment around Inle Lake has now become a concern of the whole world,” Win Myo Thu said, adding a requisite warning that as developers enter the region, “we need to be cautious to have transparency, involvement of local CSOs, and a strict policy from the government” to maximize the benefits of the status.

Other conservationists echoed his concerns, citing recent environmental degradation related to development. Hnin Hnin Ohn, a project manager for the local NGO Shwe Inn Thu, said the listing risked causing a rush of investment that, if not properly overseen, could have unintended consequences.

“We’re glad that our region was recognized as one of the natural world heritage site as it will bring development of the region in many sector,” Hnin Hnin Ohn said, “however we need to take lessons from the region’s past, when the environment was negatively impacted by developments.”

Located in Taunggyi District of eastern Burma’s Shan State, Inle Lake is known for its picturesque mountain views and cultural diversity. The area is home to a range of ethnic minority peoples, many practicing traditional methods of livelihood such as floating farms and the site’s signature leg-rowing fishing and transport methods.

But a combination of rapid development, a rise in tourism and unchecked deforestation has already begun to altar the landscape, according to local environmentalists. The felling of nearby forests for firewood, in particular, led to a steep increase of nutrient-rich soil drifting downhill and into the wetlands, clogging up waterways and causing severe draughts earlier this year.

A new 250-hectare hotel has also reportedly contributed to deforestation, while population growth and unsustainable agricultural methods—such as the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on farms and floating gardens—have polluted local water sources.

Locals said they hope the UN designation will bring about clear policies to prevent damage and ensure sustainable development across the district, which is the seat of the Shan State capital and spans some 498,721 hectares of land.

According to Unesco, the ecosystem of the freshwater lake is home to 267 bird species and 43 species of freshwater fish, otters and turtles. It has also been reported that Inle could be a nesting place for the globally endangered Sarus crane.