Last year, my sister, Lily Bunker, moved to a tiny village on the eastern edge of Lake Malawi in the northern reaches of Mozambique, Africa. For her job, she travels by boat to small villages scattered along the edge of the majestic, 360-mile-long Rift Valley lake, teaching agricultural techniques and launching education programs for the Manda Wilderness Community Trust.

Because of limited phone and Internet access in her village, I rarely hear from her these days. But this spring, she flew back to the United States for a family event and had a strange story to tell me.

One day, after a boat trip to a small lakeshore village named Ngofi near the border with Tanzania, Lily walked around a corner and saw a villager dressed in an oddly familiar T-shirt. Over the shirt’s faded blue background, gold letters spelled out “Truckee Tahoe Lumber Company.”


This chance encounter got me thinking about two of the world’s most majestic lakes, now linked in my mind by a used T-shirt. Both are international tourist destinations. And both struggle with vexing environmental challenges.

Lake Malawi faces a third-world version of Lake Tahoe’s first-world environmental problems. While we fight over whether our lakeside buildings should be two stories or four stories high, Lake Malawi worries about the pollution of intentional burns lit to increase the poor soil’s crop yields. While we inspect motorboats to prevent the spread of invasive species, Lake Malawi is banning fishing by mosquito net, a damaging fine-mesh fishing technique that strips all aquatic life from the areas where it is used intensively.

In many ways, Lake Malawi’s problems are much simpler. They represent a clear question of how to balance human survival and ecological protection. In a region where people are simply trying to feed themselves, the solutions can be much more elegant — instead of Tahoe’s seemingly impossible challenges like the pipe dream of vaporizing the Tahoe Keys and restoring the entire Upper Truckee River wetlands, Lake Malawi can teach new fishing techniques, improve agricultural practices, and focus on saving a world-renowned ecosystem before first-world problems like casinos and millions of commuting SUVs overrun the lake.

Despite those differences, I have to say that one of Lake Malawi’s responses to its environmental challenges could be very instructive for Lake Tahoe. My sister works out of Nkwichi Lodge, a model of true eco-tourism. As one news article put it, “With so much hot air in the world of responsible tourism, it is a huge relief to be genuinely impressed by Nkwichi Lodge.”

The lodge is a luxurious outpost in the Manda Wilderness, but it has mixed luxury tourism, environmental responsibility, and local community building in truly comprehensive ways. The lodge runs off of solar power and wood-fired hot water. Much of the lodge’s food is grown on site.

But it is what is done off-site that is truly remarkable. The programs run from the lodge protect wilderness, prevent poaching, build schools, start new agricultural programs, and support local cultural events at villages scattered across the region. All of this is financed, in part, by the luxury tourism revenue generated at the lodge.

I’ve been thinking a lot the last several years about our human responsibility to the land. It’s a complex problem that is perhaps the root question of human existence. It is also a challenge that, no matter how we respond, exposes our own hypocrisy and the deep imperfections of our solutions.

At Tahoe, these imperfections are magnified by the complexities of our first-world economy. The mechanisms of tourism — the roads and airports and large hotels — can’t be washed away by opting for a day of fashionable eco-tourism, like paddleboarding over powerboating. Even at Lake Malawi, where visitors travel to Manda Wilderness by jet-fuel-guzzling airplanes and motorboats, eco-tourism is simultaneously a sin and a penance.

We now live in what scientists are calling the anthropocene. Our impact on the earth is undeniable and unavoidable. We are connected to the rest of the world by our used T-shirts, our tourism, our life’s undeniable impact not just on our backyard, but on the entire globe.

It’s a paradox that Barry Lopez reflected on with incredible eloquence in “Arctic Dreams” after a day of walrus hunting on the polar icecap.

“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life…? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

At Lake Malawi, the impacts of tourism are being turned around into, arguably, a net positive environmental, cultural, and economic gain. In Tahoe — a land of wealth, innovation, and environmentalism — can we embrace the challenge of turning the tide of tourism’s deep environmental impacts? Can we lean into the light?

~ Comment on this column below.


  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

    Connect with David

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    Truckee, CA 96161

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