Korea highlights its green credentials at World Conservation Congress

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Jeju, Korea

Korea highlights its green credentials at World Conservation Congress

The International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN)'s World Conservation Congress in September gave the host country, South Korea, a chance to showcase its initiatives in "green" economics, but the controversial construction nearby of a new naval base cast a shadow over the "green Korea" image.


The IUCN's congress, held every four years and billed as the world's biggest gathering of conservationists, was held on the resort island of Jeju. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak delivered an inaugural speech that emphasized his government’s green credentials.

The Lee government's five-year plan for green growth has involved the restoration of river ecosystems under its Four Major Rivers Restoration Project -- some of these projects are very controversial -- improved management of water resources, and promotion of organic food in school cafetaria. It is in the process of setting up a Global Green Globe Institute and bidding to be the host of the Green Climate Fund, too.

One is struck by the greenery on Jeju island. Home to some of the most striking volcanic landscapes in the world, it is home to the Hanon Maar crater, the volcano Mt Halla-san that looms large over the island, and a number of secondary volcanoes. About half of Jeju is forested, and about 30 per cent is farmland, much of which is fruit orchards. Fruit like tangerines, dragon fruit and kiwi are commonplace in the Jeju market place.


Fisheries thrive here, with seas teeming with fish and seafood. Women divers, called haenyo, are an important part of the Jeju economy, and the squid, mussels, abalone and octopus means they live quite comfortably off the coastline.

However, anti-American sentiment is clouding the romantic idyll promoted by the government. A naval base being built at Gangjeong village on Jeju Island has the locals up in arms. Graffiti on the gates of the construction site, demonstrations and confrontations with the police threaten to tarnish the government's green image. The mayor of Gangjeong village even found himself cooling his heels in jail for some months.


The government is certainly very concerned about its image. The activists, who were found protesting outside the International Convention Centre in Jeju on the opening day of the Congress, were stopped at some distance from the Centre, lest they disturb the proceedings. The Gangjeong issue allegedly created a rift within the Ethics Committee of the IUCN, which saw the IUCN towing the official Korean line without giving the activists a chance to air their grievances. They were even denied a stall at the Congress to put forth their point of view, although they were allowed access to the visitors and the press at a later date in one of the pavilions.


An Open Letter from an activists questioned the official IUCN line on Gangjeong; there was nothing 'green' about the naval base, they said.


According to the protesters, constructing the naval base will strike the death knell to the natural beauty and ultimately the tourism industry on Jeju. The waterfalls and coastal scenery that have made Jeju the locale for many film shootings would soon disappear. At stake are not just the homes of people living off their farms along the Gureombi lava rock coast synonymous with Gangjeong, but the beautiful corals that line the village. Silt and construction debris are playing havoc on the corals, which are simply dying off. Hence, they point out, construction of the base will prevent the locals from continuing a way of life that centres around collecting and selling seaweed and abalone from the surrounding sea.

But, as one reads the literature put out, and talks to locals, one realizes that the resentment is actually against the American presence in Korea. The activists contest the claims of the Korean government about national security concerns. Korea, they tell you, already has the largest number of bases being used by the Americans; and they don't want the country to serve American military interests in the Far East. To them, it undermines Korean independence and self-respect. These sentiments are no different from what the Japanese have been expressing against the enforced pacifism they have been subjected to since World War II, and being part of the American sphere of influence in spite of their growing economic muscle. South Korea cannot be expected to be any different as it emerges in the Far East as an Asian tiger that is home to some of the most respected business groups in the world.

Activists have also seized on this aspect of business-related growth in the Gangjeong issue, pointing to President Lee's credentials as the former CEO of Hyundai. In fact, they question the government's role in cleaning the rivers, too, and charge the government with conceiving the project to grant huge contracts to the President's cronies in Samsung, Daewoo, Daelim and other major corporations.

The draining of Hanon Maar crater is another contentious issue. The only maar type crater in the world, the Hanon Maar is unique in its diversity and natural attraction. The Hanon Maar crater was a volcanic lake in the past. Its waters were drained out by farmers in the 16th century, at a time of water scarcity, to cultivate rice. But today, the restoration of this crater to its original form will mean rehabilitating a large number of farmers who occupy this extremely fertile stretch of land. The IUCN Congress was obviously the best vehicle for the Korean government to internationalise the issue to garner some crucial brownie points in a conservation vs people issue of this kind, where choices are difficult to identify easily.

Overall, there was a noticeable move by the IUCN at Jeju to woo over business as an ally in the battle for conservation. The omnipotence of business and corporate groups was notable at Jeju with a whole day set aside for business and its role in a green economy. There was a prominent Business and Economy pavilion, showcasing the corporate social responsibility initiatives of various business groups all over the world. Of course, the shift has been gradual in coming, but come it has.


Right through the formal opening of the sessions, and the daily global leaders’ dialogues, there was a common thread that justified the need to engage big business for nature-based solutions to the problems that plague the world today. While IUCN Director General Ashok Khosla talked of nature-based solutions that worked hand-in-hand with technology, capital, social and political factors for a new IUCN natural resources governance network in the near future, various other IUCN partners spoke in a similar vein. World Banks Vice President for Sustainable Development Rachel Kyte spoke of the need for a public-private partnership. She spoke of the need to prioritize “without devaluing anyone.” Since partnerships are hard, humility is needed. “We need to reach across so that we can cross boundaries together.”


In short, the message came out loud and clear from all: “Conservation cannot be for conservation’s sake alone." Global leaders from government, industry, the world of science and civil society came together for dialogues every evening, with presentations made by several corporate houses on how they were working on a green agenda. Of course, this also meant a company like Syngenta had the stage to push its own agenda on how the world could be better fed through genetically modified crops that could withstand better the extreme vagaries of nature that climate change has come to stand for.

The shift in the IUCN stand has been years in the making, and has earned it a good deal of flak. The IUCN report that endorsed the selection of Dhamra in Orissa for a port, in spite of it being frequented by the endangered Olive Ridley turtles for laying their eggs was severely criticized by Greenpeace. IUCN Turtle expert Dr Nicholas Pilcher, had , however, given a clean chit to the port on the ground that the beach where the turtles frequented was left undisturbed, and neither were the mangroves removed. “The port is on the mud bank, and not the sandy nesting site where the turtles lay their eggs. There have been several cases of mass nesting even after the port was built,” he points out, justifying his findings on the impact being minimum. However, he does not deny that the port is definitely a part of the larger habitat, but then shrugs it off by pointing out, “With development, there comes a certain price.”


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