Fishing is intrinsic to coastal, river and lake communities around the world, and all over Southeast Asia the ancient practice has thrown up some novel solutions, perhaps the most striking and well known example of which is the technique of the cormorant fishermen of Guilin, China, who creatively use the birds to do their fishing for them.

In Myanmar, on Lake Inle, the indigenous Intha people have evolved an interesting technique to getting around their shallow lake to catch fish.

Because the lake is a habitat of reeds and floating plants, it is difficult for a fisherman to navigate or see fish from a sitting position when rowing across the often mirror-like surface of the waters. 

As a solution to this problem the Intha have developed a distinctive method of standing on one leg at the back of their small flat bottomed teak craft, the other leg wrapped around an oar, which is then deftly and sinuously used for propulsion. This method also fortuitously leaves the hands free for manipulating their basket nets and spears.

Fishing Inle Lake

When fishing, the men often work in pairs or small groups, using the oars to create disturbance in the water, corralling the fish, most commonly grass carp, to a single point. The conical basket nets are then dropped into the shallow water trapping the fish inside. The captured fish are then speared from the upper open end of the cone.

The innovative adaptation of the Intha to their environment doesn’t stop with fishing, however. The science of hydroponics is relatively new in the west, at the cutting edge of food production and viewed as a potential solution for deep space travel, but the Intha have been deploying the technique for centuries. 

Gathering reeds from the deeper areas of the lake, the Intha people bind these to form bamboo anchored floating islands, which are then matured, a process taking ten years, whereby organic matter from the lakebed is successively overlaid on the beds, upon which grass begins to grow, a process repeated several times.

Water farming, Lake Inle, Myanmar

Upon maturation, these islands are cut into long ribbons of floating furrows upon which a wide variety of crops, including flowers, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and many other fruits and vegetables can be grown, their roots feeding off the nutrient rich waters. The crops are tended by boat, travelling up and down between the furrows. Harvesting is also often achieved in this manner, though some crops require walking on the floating beds, which are easily strong enough to support human weight.

The agricultural rafts have an average lifespan of between ten and fifteen years, whereafter, being wholly organic, the rafts can be broken up and returned to their watery environment. This method of agriculture has many other benefits, not least of which is resistance to flooding. As monsoon rains lash down, water levels can increase dramatically, but these serene gardens simply rise and fall with prevailing conditions.

If all this sounds rather idyllic, it is, but the inevitable encroachment of the modern world has latterly introduced the use of chemicals to increase productivity, which has triggered alarm for the future health of this delicate ecosystem, not least because the lake provide drinking water for half of the citizens of Shan State.

 

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