‘Mirror lake’ reflects greed

Left: A suspicious froth on a devegetated shore.
Right: Muddied water and muddied boats.

Vietnam Heritage, October-November 2011 -- I moved to the Central Highlands more than 20 years ago. I still remember the first time I saw Lac Lake, in Lac District, Dak Lak Province, from the Giang Re Pass, at an altitude of 1,000 metres.
A story of the M’nong people says, ‘Lac Lake is a silver plate that God gave the M’nong people so that they could look at themselves every day.’ The lake is indeed like a round dish surrounded by green forests which reflect themselves in the lake.
When I came face to face with the lake, I could see how large it was with its blue, clear water surrounded by lots of different aquatic plants. I also saw M’nong men row their boats with a spear in their hands and at times quickly stab into the water and catch a fish while the women poured fish from their baskets on to wattles to dry.
It must have been because of the lovely scenery, the richness of nature and the gentle and cheerful M’nong people that in the 1930s King Bao Dai had a beautiful house built on a hill there, and when he had a chance he always came to stay and enjoy the fresh air and lovely atmosphere, hold hunting and fishing trips, drink local wine, eat smoked meat with the locals and watch the M’nong boys and girls sing and dance.
In the 1990s, Dak Lak Province decided that Lac Lake and Don Village, and Gia Long, Dray Sap and Dray Nu waterfalls, were major tourist attractions of the province. And in 1995, Dak Lak established the Lac Lake Historic-Cultural-Environmental Forest Management to manage and protect the area and promote tourist services.

At that time, according to the Lac Lake Historic-Cultural-Environmental Forest Management, the forest area around the lake was 12,744 ha, with natural resources like flora and fauna, rivers, springs and a wide diversity of tropical ecological systems. There were 548 plant species, 61 species of animals, 17 species of amphibians, 26 species of reptiles and 132 species of birds; there were precious trees like ironwood and rare animals like peacocks, zebra turkeys, red wolves and black-footed langurs.
Mr Ma Wam, a M’nong man, chief of Jun Village, said, ‘Lac Lake is now much smaller and there is much less water in it. The water is dirtier, too. There are fewer fish. It is so polluted that if you wash with water from the lake you will get itchy.’
Mr Ma Wam, 45, who was born by the lake and grew up there, looked very sad and said, ‘Lac Lake will be lost if nothing is done about the situation. It will go dry. Once it is dry, there will be no more fish, no more farming, no more tourism. The locals will suffer a lot.’
Mr Ma Wam looked happy when he began to tell stories about the past. He said, ‘When I was ten or 15 years old, every morning I got a spear and jumped on a boat. I went around for about an hour and caught four or five fish of a few kilos each. If I wanted to catch small fish, I just got a basket and caught them from under the floating weeds. After half an hour, I could catch some kilos. Now, catching a few kilos of fish takes the whole day. It’s very very hard.’
Leaving Mr Ma Wam’s house, I walked round Lac Lake. It is true that the lake is now much smaller. It was almost 700 ha in area and now only about 450 ha. There are no weeds, water ferns and other aquatic plants where fish can take shelter.
According to Mr Ma Wam, the lake was very deep. It was more than 10 metres deep at several places while the deepest places are now just about four metres.
I saw fishing nets everywhere around the lake. People have even poured earth into some parts of the lake to build their houses or have made fish ponds of their own. Taking a look around, I saw that most of the surrounding forests in the past have now been cut down. On the other side of the lake, I saw a big boat using electricity to kill fish en masse. Waste water and other kinds of waste from thousands of households around the lake are poured in to it.
An official from the Lac Lake Historic-Cultural-Environmental Forest Management said, ‘Now, after handing part of the area over to the local authorities, we are in charge of only 10,600 ha of forest and forest land, of which 90 per cent runs down toward the lake; and more than half of that area has been cut down to make room for farming, and the plant carpet that protects the land surface and prevents erosion no longer exists.’
According to calculations by the Central Highlands Land Research Centre, without a plant carpet on the land surface, about 90 tonnes of earth from one hectare is moved into the lake every year. That is why the lake has been getting shallower and shallower very rapidly and the water is no longer clean and clear, the official says.
‘But the forest around the lake is under
control of the Lac Lake Historic-Cultural-Environmental Forest Management, right?’ I asked. The official sniggered and said, ‘Only 30 people to take care of more than 10,000 ha, so we couldn’t protect it even if we each had four arms and four legs. Also, the people who cut down the forest are indigenous tribal people who are “sensitive” people. Even if we catch them red-handed cutting down trees, we can only apply minor penalties and then release them. That can’t be severe enough to stop them cutting down trees.’
A retired official from Lac District authority said the provincial authorities had assigned Lien Son Town authority to be in charge of protection of the lake, but they had no idea about how to do it. As a result, anyone could go fishing in the lake in any way they liked, including using nets and electricity. ‘It looks like the lake belongs to nobody,’ the retired official said.

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