Kim Sung Hun is the director of the Jeju Island’s volunteer after school program Uri Deul Hakgyo (“Our Outdoor School”).
The falling petals from cherry blossom trees scatter in the barren city center like spring rain. Yet it takes only a 30-minute drive to find another captivating seasonal scene. The bright yellow, in a wide field of rapeseed flowers, contrasts delicately with the basalt stone walls, coarsely piled up to demarcate farming fields.
Looking up, Mt. Halla comes into view. The center of gravity on Jeju Island, the mountain gleams as streams of water wind down to its foothills.
The parasitic volcanic cones (oreum, in the Jeju dialect) are noticeable on this large volcanic mountain. Passing down through a Gotjawal forest, the mountain roads meet the wide open sea that embraces the island.
The five environmental axes of Jeju create the unique environment of the island. They are Mt. Halla, streams, oreum, Gotjawal and the sea. Among them, Gotjawal can only be seen on Jeju Island. Gotjawal is a term in Jeju dialect that refers to a forest composed of thorny bushes and various types of trees. Gotjawal forests are formed on the rocky and uneven ground formed from highly viscous lava flows. With big and small rocks scattered around, Gotjawal areas were difficult to develop for agriculture and therefore left intact for thousands of years allowing the wild forests to flourish.
Volcanic rocks are highly porous. No matter how heavy the rain, the Gotjawal forests never become inundated. The rain water easily permeates the holes, recharging the groundwater reserve. Gotjawal is the world’s only forest where it is warm in the winter and emits cool air in the summer, providing a good habitat for various unique plants to grow.
Jeju’s ancestors lived closely with the Gotjawal. They cut the trees from the forest and made charcoal and farming tools and built houses. All kinds of fruit and wild animals from the Gotjawal forests were a good source of food. However, with scientific development and the availability of heavy equipment, Gotjawal are no longer deserted areas.
Developers rushed in to take advantage of the cheap land and areas with good scenic views. The thickly wooded forests groaned with pain as heavy equipment tore up areas to develop large golf courses. This development frenzy has only become bolder with a massive development underway to build the English Education City in an area of more than 1.1 million pyeong (3.63 million square meters). This compares with the Yeoido area in Seoul, which is approximately 900,000 pyeong (3 million square meters).
The grass on the golf courses covers the porous ground surface and prevents rain water to permeate the ground. The paved surface also functions as a drainage way that passes all kinds of contaminated substances through the remaining porous passage, exposing the groundwater reserve to a greater risk of contamination.
However, there are some encouraging activities that have taken place. A trust fund, called Gotjawal Trust, has been established and will enable people to donate money to purchase Gotjawal areas for permanent preservation. At the same time, there is a movement for the adoption of an ordinance for the preservation of Gotjawal areas. We should pay more attention to such activities. It is also good news that the agenda for the 2012 World Conservation Congress will include a suggestion “making Gotjawal as an UNESCO World Heritage site.”
Once the environment is damaged, it is very expensive, and almost impossible, to restore it to its original condition. If we refuse to take any environmental matter seriously, consequential disasters may hit us like an unimaginable tsunami. The clean water and clear air are not solely for our generation’s exclusive use. We must be aware that this precious environment is only borrowed from our future generations. We are using it only temporarily, and it has to be returned to them, flawlessly.
All environmental elements are precious. Among them, Gotjawal, is the heart of Jeju Island, and must remain Jeju’s treasure, forever.
(Translation by Suh Eunsook)