Posted 30 September 2010, by Rebecca Smith, Kyoto Journal, kyotojournal.org
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One of the paradigmatic images of creation is the island that suddenly manifests itself in the midst of the waves. —Mircea Eliade
JEJU ISLAND Is indeed a living symbol of island as creation. Mount Halla, a volcanic mountain at the island’s center, gave birth to Jeju two million years ago. The cone’s lake-filled crater and other crater lakes in the hundreds of smaller “parasitic” cones on Halla retain rainwater, making abundant life possible. Groundwater from Jeju’s wetlands, including the naturally formed Gotjawal Forest surrounding Halla, provides the main water source for the island’s 500,000 residents. Little wonder that Halla is considered a sacred mountain.
Jeju’s biodiversity is richer than any region of the Korean Peninsula. About 200 endemic plant species are found on the island, along with half of Korea’s endangered plant and animal species. Polar plant species that advanced southwards during the Ice Age live on Halla’s summit. Over 1565 species of plants and 1,179 species of animals live in Halla’s habitat, not including unknown species. Two new mushroom species were discovered last year. The southern coast is a soft coral habitat home to tropical fish and hundreds of dolphins that migrate from Alaska via the Pacific Ocean to stay off the Gangjeong coast every summer. Moreover, Jeju is marked by distinctive people who speak their own dialect — rooted in farming and fishing village life — more informal than other regional cultures on the Korean peninsula.
The island’s breathtaking natural riches justify acclaim and preservation. Halla is a national park. In 2001, the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration designated the southern coast a national monument protection area. In 2007, UNESCO named Jeju a World Heritage Site because of its “outstanding aesthetic beauty” that “bears testimony to the history of the planet.” The UN also named Jeju a biosphere preservation zone. Three wetland habitats are Ramsar sites.
Unfortunately, other parts of Jeju which is South Korea’s ninth province (170 km south of the peninsula and an hour’s flight from Seoul), are not protected. This is largely because sustainable development and threatened species management are not yet developed concepts in South Korea. In 2006 the federal government made a designation based on profit instead of preservation, naming Jeju a “free international city. This would make way for massive development, including casinos, theme parks, golf courses, and hotels.
In 2010, the city announced it wants to outdo Hong Kong and Singapore as an “Asian business hub” featuring a health care tourist town and an education complex. On top of that, the South Korean government wants to build a naval base at the farming and fishing village of Gangjeong on the southern coast. The soft coral reef is the only habitat for dolphins in all of Korea. Hundreds of Spinner Dolphins migrate annually from Alaska to Gangjeong through the Pacific Ocean, visiting every June to September.
In 2006, political science professor Ko Changhoonof Jeju National University, in cooperation with scholars at other universities around the world, began a series of workshops known as the “Peace Island School,” dedicated to a different kind of development based on sustainability, the protection of peaceful co-existence, island heritages, and environment. These workshops continue to attract many participants.
The choice before Jeju is that of an epic struggle — global urbanization, industrialization, and militarization versus natural preservation. We see this conflict playing out globally with pollution and degradation resulting from the kind of massive transformation that is now threatening Jeju’s distinctive biodiversity and regional culture. Indigenous species and cultures both need native habitat to survive. Overgrazing, fire, and tourist development have already altered Jeju. Will this island come to represent outdated and unsustainable global monoculture or new visions of peaceful preservation of ancient and unique natural and cultural heritage?
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