Legendary Lugu lake becalmed after motorboat ban

Zhong Meilan and the Sichuan Daily won the 2015 chinadialogue Public Service Award for this story

Lugu lake, a scenic area in Sichuan, is at peace again after conservationists won a battle over the use of motorboats on a waterway famed for its natural beauty, religious mysticism and cultural heritage.

Managers of the lake wanted to replace the traditional dugout boats used by locals with more modern motor-powered alternatives. But media coverage led to concerns about environmental and cultural damage, and the plans were shelved. The traditional boats remain, in harmony with the mountain backdrop and local Mosuo culture.

In October last year, information circulated online that Yanyuan county in Sichuan was to start using motor-powered boats on Lugu Lake. Contributors to online forums from southwestern provinces were quick to ask questions: Why were the new boats needed? Would they cause pollution? Did the locals want them? Would this harm the local Mosuo culture? I visited the lake, lying on the border of Sichuan and Yunnan, to find out. 

It’s November 4, and Lugu lake shines mirror-like under a bright sun. Tourists are disembarking a Sichuan-registered tour bus at the Luowa dock and clambering into the boats traditionally used here: a large canoe, known as a ‘pig-trough boat’, made of a hollowed-out tree trunk with rounded ends.

Laughing and chatting, visitors row themselves out onto the lake. The local Mosuo people use these boats to get around the lake, and as Erche Longbu, from the local village of Boshu puts it: “It’d be a shame to lose such a pretty scene.”

He just doesn’t understand why the lake’s managers would want to use modern, noisy disruptive boats: “Business is going great, I really don’t see why they want to bring in motorboats.”

Many other locals have the same questions. 

Peng Qishou, head of the county tourism bureau, says the use of motorboats is “for safety and to meet the varied demands of tourists.” He explained that while the Mosuo people have used the dugout, motorless boats for generations, there are safety concerns when they are used to carry passengers, and they are inconvenient for tourists.

Li Zhizhi, head of the inspection team at the Lugu Lake Management Bureau, adds that “using the motorboats will mean the locals will no longer need to do the rowing.”

But Boshu villager Yiruo Ci’er has been rowing the dugouts for years and says accidents are very rare – the only one happened when the owner was breaking the rules. And, he says, villagers are happy to make a living in this way.

Sha Guoqing, head of the county marine bureau, says that although there have been accidents, prompt rescue efforts have prevented any serious injuries to tourists.

I spoke to 57 tourists from places that include Beijing, Leshan and Guangdong – only two say they agree with introducing motorboats. “You’ve got them everywhere, but you come to Lugu lake for the quiet and the Mosuo culture,” says one visitor.

Tourism chief Peng Qishou pointed out that the four new boats had been designed and painted to blend in with Mosuo culture, and are powered by clean energy in order to prevent pollution.

The locals aren’t convinced. In early November, local resident Nima Jiaze started a petition against the motorboats, gathering 1,500 signatures, nearly 90% of which from villagers on the Yunnan side of the lake, within three days.

He Zhi’an, deputy head at the county environmental protection bureau, said Lugu lake is a national AAAA-rated scenic area, and is environmentally sensitive. Introducing motorboats would require an environmental impact assessment, but this process wasn’t done for these four motorboats.

Village representative Lajia Cong expresses other concerns: “There’s a type of seaweed here that purifies the water – if that was harmed, there’s no telling what the consequences would be.” The boat propellers will damage the seaweed, he says, and the noise will ruin the peace and quiet of the lake.

The boats were delivered to the dock at Dazui in October and, immediately, passing locals posted photos on WeChat. Within a day more than 10,000 people had seen them. “I’d say 99% of villagers were opposed when they heard about it,” said Lajia Cong.

But Peng Qishou thinks villagers were worried that the local government was going to set up a company to run the boats and compete with locals for business.

Yang Yiyou, of Duoshe village, disagrees: “The opposition is because we’re worried about damage to the environment and Mosuo culture.” The Mosuo people have made their living from the lake for generations, but if the lake is ruined, it won’t only be the Mosuo people that suffer.

Mr Yang (unrelated) from the Lijiang Lugu Lake Management Committee Office, says that in 2010 an agreement for joint conservation efforts was reached between his office and its counterpart across the border in Sichuan, the Liangshan Prefecture Lugu Lake Provincial Tourist Area Management Committee. One of the items in that agreement stated that unless necessary for law enforcement or safety, no boats powered by fuel, solar energy or electricity were to be used on the lake. He hopes this will prevent the use of motorboats. 

Cultural experiences 

A week later, Yanyuan authorities met with media to announce a decision: the motorboats would only be used if three conditions were met.

Peng Zhenghua, deputy head of the county tourism bureau, explained: “First, the motorboats need to be checked and up to standard. Second, locals need to accept them. Third, the Yunnan Lugu Lake Management Committee has to agree.”

At that point the boats were being tested at an island in the lake. 

Chen Zhong is head of the pollution prevention department at the Liangshan Environmental Protection Bureau. He said that even if the boats are environmentally friendly, an environmental impact assessment still needs to be carried out before they are tested or put into formal operation – their use will affect the local environment, and that means they affect the interests of the locals. And a precondition for the environmental impact assessment is carrying out a social stability assessment.

“If you can’t pass that social stability assessment, you can’t get past the environmental assessment,” explained Chen. And it is clear that local environment authorities were unaware the boats were being introduced and that the owners should be subject to punishment.

Yang Fuquan, deputy head of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, expresses dismay about the plans for motorboats. “I really don’t understand why Yanyuan county wants to do this? What reason do they have for using the motorboats?”

Yang thinks there are few places left in China where visitors can see something like the Mosuo dugouts that is not only a cultural artefact, but is also part of the local scenery and customs, and is being used for tourism.

The dugouts aren’t just a method of transport – these boats are a part of the culture and a tourist attraction in their own right. The villagers can make a living from them and while doing so tell the tourists about Mosuo culture and history. Tourists can even row the boats themselves to see what it’s like – those are experiences the motorboats can’t provide.

“You can’t say something is better just because it makes more money,” Yang said, adding that the introduction of motorboats to the lake will damage the entire cultural landscape. Modern quality tourism does not have to mean mechanisation and higher profits.

Yunnan’s Pudacuo National Park learned that lesson in the 1990s when motorboats were introduced to a lake there but quickly banned them after tourists objected.

Yang Zhengwen, head of the South-west Research Centre at the Ministry of Culture’s Centre for Ethnic and Folk Literature and Art Development, agrees. He thinks development of tourism should be aimed at meeting the needs of locals: benefit the local culture, environment and society; and be sustainable. “Tourism is a double-edged sword – you can make money, but it also brings cultural pollution. When local characteristics are lost, the local culture naturally becomes less attractive.”

Yang says that while the dugout boats are just one facet of Mosuo culture, they are essential to the ethnic group’s identity, and how they live and use the lake. 

A senior engineer with the Sichuan Academy of Environmental Sciences told this reporter that for Lugu lake, environmental protection isn’t just about water quality – it is also relevant to the entire environment, including air and biodiversity. The liquefied gas the boats run on might not damage water quality, but will affect the air and the seaweed which lives in the lake.

“Tourists don’t go there for the comfort,” he added. The new boats would have removed a cultural experience – and been a loss for visitors too.

This article was originally published on the Sichuan Daily website and can be found here.