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Although the second-largest lake in the Philippines and considered one of 17 ancient lakes of the world, Lake Lanao is little known and seldom visited by tourists. Covering over 84,000 acres on a high plateau surrounded on three sides by mountains in the Mindanao Super Region, this jewel is the source of over 50% of the hydroelectric power for this island province. At least two million years old, the huge lake was formed in a rift valley dammed by volcanic action and has developed its own group of endemic fish found nowhere else on earth. The lakeshore has been the home of the Maranao tribe for over a thousand years. In fact, the name Lanao is derived from the Maranao word ranao, meaning lake and they thus call themselves Maranao, or People of the Lake. The name Lake Lanao is then a redundancy, meaning Lake Lake. The Maranao revere their lake, and it is the subject of most folk tales and legends among the tribe.
Lake Lanao has five small tributaries contributing water to the lake: Taraka, Gata, Masiu and Bacayawan. There is only one out-flowing river, the Agus River. Said to be the swiftest running in the country, the Agus River exits in two channels, with one feeding the Maria Cristina Falls and the other creating Cinnamon Falls on its way to Illana Bay. Lake Lanao is home to a highly unusual group of fish known as a "species flock". All 18 species are thought to have evolved from one specie, the spotted barb. These fish are of great interest to scientists as they represent the rapidity with which fish species can evolve in a closed system. Unfortunately, changes in water levels and the introduction of other non-native species of fish have reduced the number of endemics, and now only about five types remain. The lake is still very important to local economies in that both commercial and sport fishing is engaged in. The varieties now caught include mudfish, tilapia, goby, catfish, climbing perch, eels and freshwater shrimp.
The Maranao use the lake as a primary transportation route, their colorfully-painted dug-out-style boats piled high with goods and people on their way to other settlements along the shore. The lake comes alive especially on market days. Both traditional dug-outs and motorized boats ply the lake, providing transport and communication between lake communities.
A great variety of waterfowl call Lake Lanao home, with egrets, bitterns, herons, ducks, geese, rails, Eurasian coots and gallinules found in large numbers. The lake is well-supplied with wetlands and emergent reeds, providing excellent breeding habitat for shorebirds. Wild pig and deer inhabit the shoreline, which is also used for livestock grazing. Local people grow rice and other crops on their farming plots and use the lake water for bathing and drinking water.
Surveys commissioned by Gen. Douglas McArthur while he acted as advisor to the Philippines before the Second World War identified the Agus River as suitable for the generation of hydroelectric power. The first downstream dam in a series of six dams along the river began producing electricity in 1953. Unfortunately, after the 1978 dam near Marawi City was built, lake levels began to be affected by the continually-changing river levels. A second dam at the other outlet branch enlarged and altered the outflow to the extent that water levels are no longer kept stable. Recent studies show that this is affecting water quality and changing the water chemistry of the once-pristine lake.
Lake Lanao Watershed Protection and Development Council (LLWPDC) was created in 1992 and was responsible for the development of the Lake Lanao Integrated Development Plan (IDP) in 2003. Unfortunately, progress has been slow, interrupted both by frequently-changing authority and failure to abide by environmentally-sound regulation. Although a portion of the watershed is protected forest lands, officials have been known to issue logging permits in defiance of no-cut laws. Efforts to implement and enforce water level regulations have also failed so far as the electrical power is badly needed. And local representatives complain that, although their lake is being utilized to provide electricity for others, locals have seen little benefit and many remain in poverty. As hostilities between the Moro National Liberation Front and Philippine government forces have subsided in recent years, it is hoped that the lake can be protected and managed to better protect the environment and provide necessary improvements for the local residents.
Located on the southernmost group of islands constituting the Philippines, Lake Lanao lies at the heart of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a self-governed region with the largest Muslim population in the Philippines. This religious majority has existed in Mindanao since the 16th century and pre-dates the arrival of the Spaniards into the islands. Although the former sultanate form of rulership has given way to democratic elections, most of the former royal families still hold the majority of positions of power, both politically and financially. Marawi City is resplendent with ornate and excellently tended mosques, some of great age. Many large torogans, the Maranao houses characterized by an antique royal high roof with curved designs, add to the exotic atmosphere. Scenery at the lake, backed by the mountains, is excellent. Locals are quick to point out the series of peaks called the Sleeping Lady, which look like a reclining woman.
The local people love brilliant colors and dress in colorful handmade garments, particularly the women who wear the traditional malong dyed in violet, purple, green, red, yellow, floral, and geometrics. The Maranao tribe is highly artistic; their numerous ceremonial artifacts and everyday tools are trimmed with the sensuous "okir" (carving) and colorful "nagas" (serpent figures). A section of Marawi City called Tugaya Town produces excellent decorative brassware using the lost wax technique. Visitors often come expressly to bargain for the brassware, carvings and dyed textiles produced by the people. Elected representatives are currently working toward developing a full-fledged tourism industry now that the political strife has subsided.
Local Mindanao State University, founded in 1962, has done much to promote progress in the area. Serving as an educational institute and a center of social and cultural integration, the university provides the only resort hotel in the area and sports a nine-hole golf course. Aga Khan Museum, located on campus, displays a huge collection of indigenous art and cultural materials, ethnic music, native tools and weapons used by the Muslims, and houses of different artistic designs. One of the attractions offered at Dansalan College in Marawi City is the Dasalan Handicraft Building where expert carvers and weavers offer live demonstrations showcasing Maranao arts and skills. Visitors also enjoy Bagang Beach near Marawi City and touring around the lake. Marawi City holds many festivals throughout the year, most of them religiously-based. Like the local landmark Sacred Mountain, visitors may not be welcome at many of these events, and it would be best to ask for information at the university.
Because the fledgling tourism industry here is in its infancy, there don't appear to be many choices of lodgings available at present. Official Philippines travel websites offer little in the way of tours or itineraries that include Mindanao or Lake Lanao. The lake is accessible by car, and a road travels completely around the lake, entering several local villages. It is unknown if real estate is available for purchase. A visit to Mindanao State University might be the most convenient way to visit Lake Lanao, which devotes much research to the lake and its environment. For those who enjoy the road less traveled, a trip to Lake Lanao should definitely be on your bucket list. No other place has quite the atmosphere or flavor of Lake Lanao!
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