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Art&CultureReview
‘Let nature work’The first in a new environmental series, we take an in-depth look at Jeju’s wetlands
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승인 2011.01.02  19:07:59
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▲ At Mulyeongari oreum, fog gathers in the crater and sweeps past Styrax flowers. Photo by Ko Pyung Yul

This year saw Jeju receive a number of prestigious environmental awards from international organizations, a fact which Government officials have said is proof of the success of its new rebranding strategy. However, behind this obvious political posturing are committed environmental preservation experts pushing a similar agenda for the island, but for a different end.

This new series will speak with the experts in order to understand the real importance of these awards to Jeju’s environment, not just the stated effort to attract tourists.

One of the least understood and therefore most overlooked aspects of Jeju’s environment is its wetlands. Jeju is currently home to three of Korea’s five RAMSAR-designated wetlands, and the Government is looking to have a fourth one nominated. However, outside of these four Jeju contains an unknown number of wetlands. They remain uncounted due somewhat to the fact that many are believed hidden within the Gotjawal forest and somewhat due to the varying definitions of wetlands.

According to Ko Pyung Yul, a wetland ecoguide and former member of the Environmental Activities Association NGO, the Korean definition of wetland is considerably stricter than that of RAMSAR. The UNESCO-sanctioned preservation organization claims that under the RAMSAR Convention, article 1.1, wetlands “may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six meters at low tide lying within the wetlands.” In other words, essentially any area that retains water, even temporarily, is considered a wetland. This includes ocean areas up to 6 meters in depth.

“Based on RAMSAR there are hundreds of wetlands on Jeju,” said Ko. “The purpose of RAMSAR wetland is to preserve wetlands where migratory birds are living.”

The Korean definition though, excludes coastal areas.
The three wetlands that have been christened by RAMSAR are indeed special. In particular the wetland upon Mulyeongari oreum [parallel volcano cone] in Sumang-ri, Namwoneup, Seogwipo which consists of a pool of water that has accumulated in the crater at the top of the oreum. This phenomenon is uncommon on Jeju because of its rocky and porous soil that tends to prevent water retention and for a long time left scientists puzzled.

According to Ko, the most convincing theory as to the creation of the Mulyeongari oreum wetland, between 100,000 and 150,000 years ago, has to do with cows and horses. “A long time ago,” said Ko, “in that area some horses and cows were living on the crater and all the excrement accumulated.” Due to the heavy weight of the animals grazing atop the oreum they compacted the manure which over time built a thick layer of rich soil that was able to retain rain water. Over time the water accumulated and became a wetland.

The importance of wetlands is that they are literally a breeding ground of biodiversity. “Where water exists plants live, and where plants live animals come,” Ko said. In fact Mulyeongari oreum wetland is home to 210 species of marshy vegetation, 47 insect species, and 8 species of amphibian and reptile within its 0.309 km square area. Within those numbers are a minority of rare and endangered plants and animals such as water beetles and narrow-mouthed toads.

It was some 20 years ago that environmental groups started to pay attention to wetlands due to their biodiversity. Environmental groups, headed by the Environmental Activities Association on Jeju, who discovered the endangered species while conducting research in these areas, began pushing for their preservation. In December 2000 the Mulyeongari oreum wetland was designated an area of conservation, and in 2007 RAMSAR laid its stamp of approval to the site due to its level of ecological importance.

But within the last 10 years it has been documented that the Mulyeongari oreum wetland water level has gradually fallen. Ironically, the wetland's preservation is the cause of their destruction.

“The problem is some cows and horses were stepping on the soil making it hard but [currently] there is no[thing performing a] function like that. So the wetland water is disappearing … because no animals are stepping on it or releasing excrement,” Ko said.

To some this may seem a problem but to Ko this is nature’s progress. Due to the ban on human intervention in the area, the wetland has little to no chemical contamination from agricultural run-off or from waste produced by golf courses or development. It has been kept in pristine condition and, though the water is slowly being absorbed into the ground, the species that live there are afforded time to adapt to their changing environment. If humans were allowed to intervene, the water level might be maintained, but at what cost to the environment?

Ko said that it is of the utmost importance to not view the wetlands from a human perspective but from the perspective of nature, through “nature’s eyes.”
“Let nature work.”


(Interpretation by Song Jung Hee)




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