Q&A: Face of Indawgyi

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Stephen Traina-Dorge and Patrick Compton of Face of Indawgyi. (Myanmore)

Based on the shores of its stunning namesake, Face of Indawgyi was officially established almost one year ago to improve the lives of people living around Indawgyi Lake, Myanmar’s largest and Southeast Asia’s third largest lake.

Founder and managing director Stephen Traina-Dorge, 28, from New Orleans and director Patrick Compton, 29, from the small town of Tryon in North Carolina are focused on emphasizing the cultural and biodiversity of the area in the northern hills of Kachin State. Most importantly, they want to create an ethos of sustainable tourism that benefits the local community and protects the wildlife.

Using the profits of Lon Ton Social Impact Guesthouse to fund initiatives around the lake, their work has ranged from creating a village tourist map to reversing the fortunes of a beleaguered native language. Stephen and Patrick sat down with Myat Theingi Khine to discuss their projects and plans.

What made you establish a sustainable tourism organization on Indawgyi Lake?

Stephen: It started in 2015 when I was doing a cultural preservation documentary on thanaka. We were traveling the entire country to document this oral tradition—that had not really been done before, so we were going to a lot of areas foreigners had not gone to. We were in Kachin State and there was no information on Indawgyi other than it was Myanmar’s largest lake. There was no information on how to get there so we ended up getting a train and then a 4×4 which drove through the mountains and took us to the only guesthouse in town. Knowing it was this wildlife sanctuary, you have this image in your head of it being hypersensitive to trash and being very clean, but then you arrive there and though it’s this beautiful place there’s plastic waste in all the villages. There has to be some very simple solutions to these problems, just basic infrastructure that can really start to transform and protect the place. The whole inspiration was a social impact guesthouse where people are staying in quality accommodation but through that money is going back to support community projects.

Patrick: We are the first foreign company registered in the township and the third foreign company registered in Kachin State. Sometimes we don’t appreciate that ourselves, this is brand new. In 2012 there was 17 foreign visitors to Indawgyi and now we are living here and trying to start a company. It’s a slow process, but one that has been really fascinating, to work with different parts of the government, local organizations and individuals to make these projects happen.

Tell us about your projects.

Patrick: We focus on four pillars: cultural preservation, sustainable business development, education and environmental conservation. We have already done projects in these four categories. For example, we launched a plastic awareness campaign last month by going to Shwe Myitzu Pagoda, the biggest tourist attraction at the lake. It has an annual pagoda festival, with over 150,000 people. After the festival it was a complete disaster, completely wrecked. We organized a team of 15 to clean up for three days in the hot sun. Not exactly fun, but we were able to clear about one kilometer of the shore line of all this plastic debris that was going float into the water over the next month or so. My favorite projects are on the cultural preservation side, learning about the Shan-ni culture and how under researched it is. Indawgyi has an amazingly diverse background with these histories and stories that have never been told before. It’s really an honor to be some of the first outsiders to ever hear them and then get to share them to a broader audience.

A view of Indawgyi Lake. (Stephen Traina-Dorge)

How about Lon Ton Social Impact Guesthouse?

Stephen: That has always been the centerpiece to the projects around the lake. There are the community projects, but the best way to make those go on is getting money from an established guesthouse. It immediately gets guests involved in the community—that’s the whole point of the guesthouse. For two years I’ve been going back and forth to check on different projects, walking around with the guesthouse manager. He has asked different people if they are interested in leasing their land. You go inside, sit down for tea and ask if they are interested in leasing their property. It was the most interesting thing to be part of because you’re used to seeing a ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ sign, but then we went to a handful of places and finally found one directly on the lake on the side of a hill, completely covered in trees. It’s just magical. We are going to develop it as the centerpiece of this neighborhood. It will have four standard rooms and six private bungalows, all facing the lake. It’s very communal but then we will have a lot of areas where you can have your own space.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far?

Patrick: The kind of business we are trying to do is a new idea in general: a company that is solely focused on using its revenue to make the region a better place. We are not focused on becoming millionaires, we just want to give back to the community. Even outside Myanmar, it’s a business concept that has only been around in the mainstream maybe five or 10 years. Having this as our concept and then explaining it to an area where there has never been outside business to begin with, let alone one with such unique ideas, has been hard for people to understand. ‘Wait, you guys want to come here and open an hotel, but you are not here just to make money?’ It’s an odd thing to explain to people, but the more time we have spent there doing our work, the more people have been able to see the long-term benefits.

So local people mostly make a living out of rice farming and fishing. Roughly how much do they earn?

Patrick: Between US$800 and $1,200 a year is on the higher end. But it is not enough, and that’s why many go to the jade and gold mines in Hpakant, northern Kachin State, during the off-season, particularly the people of Lone Ton village. Growing drugs use, a lack of employment opportunities and the draw of the destructive jade and gold mines blight the youth in the region.

What can be done to improve social mobility and alleviate this situation?

Stephen: The main thing is a lack of opportunity. At the most, kids only go up to 10th grade or do University Distance Education, but that’s not really providing any long-term opportunities for these children and these people who live around the lake. Farming or fishing does not provide enough income annually so they have to go to the gold mines, they have to go to the forest to extract teak and other kinds of lumber. Through the hotel-training school and guesthouse, we are trying to create educational opportunities in the tourism sector, but we see Indawgyi as a hub for a whole range of opportunities. Right now, we are also working on ways to bring in tech education through skills like programming that will provide other kinds of employment options for a stable income. The whole idea is that if you focus on the community needs, it will lessen the impact of the mining and lessen the number of people going to Hpakant.

Patrick: So we just hired our first full-time employee and this is actually going to be the first summer he is not going to Hpakant. We also know that there is only so much we will be able to do with our training school and having guides and tourism, but we see Indawgyi as a potential hub so we are trying to work with any organization that is interested in developing this area. That’s why we are trying to partner with groups like [Yangon-based tech hub] Phandeeyar and others. Why can’t this be a place where we create a model for world development?

Face of Indawgyi has installed bamboo bins near the lake. (Stephen Traina-Dorge)

What cultures and peoples exist around the lake?

Stephen: Three different groups live around the lake: Shan-ni, Kachin and Bamar. The Shan-ni are the majority ethnic group. Most of the village names come from Shan-ni words. Shan-ni, and then the Kachin, who were always around but in the mountains, they were never in the valleys. Then more recently the Bamar came, with the Tatmadaw fighting the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). So there has been a mix. You talk to some of these families and they are a Burmese-Shan mix. The dad was Burmese in the military, the mum was Shan. It is a Shan area. Kachin communities grew when the KIA was trying to expand as well and settle in a lot of these areas in Kachin State that weren’t previously Kachin areas. That’s when they started establishing little neighborhoods on the edges of these villages. They are still there, in just a handful of villages around the lake.

Patrick: The name Lon Ton is from the Shan-ni language: it means ‘coming down from the mountains’ and ‘gathering food.’ It was basically a meeting place between the Kachin people who would come and trade with the Shan-ni people. The Shan-ni are Buddhist and speak a different language, the Kachin are Christian. Their script is the Latin alphabet; the Shan-ni script is a variant of Shan. There is a pretty big cultural difference but they have lived side-by-side for centuries and even today, despite they conflict, they generally get along.

What lasting impact would you like to have there?

Stephen: At the end of the day, we don’t view this as our project. Rather it is a coming together of a wide range of ideas that will make this project succeed and truly make a difference. Please follow us on social media and share any ideas you might have because we know that together we can make a brighter future for Indawgyi Lake.

Visit www.faceofindawgyi.org and follow the organization on Facebook @faceofindawgyi.

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