▲ Professor Ibrahim Komoo, Coordinator of the Asia Pacific Geopark Network (APGN) was speaking at the APGN symposium on Sept. 11 at the KAL Hotel, Jeju City. Photo by Darren Southcott
“My final dream is to see the countries become one ... the way forward is not the difference between countries [or] people but it’s about our set values.”
Professor Ibrahim Komoo, Coordinator of the Asia Pacific Geopark Network (APGN) was speaking at the APGN symposium on Sept. 11 at the KAL Hotel, Jeju City. The APGN, a networking platform and member of the Global Geoparks Network (GGN), had convened for its annual symposium.
As part of the UNESCO-assisted Global Geoparks Network (GGN), the APGN is charged with designating and protecting the continent’s geoheritage through conservation, education and geotourism. A Geopark is defined as:
“[A] nationally protected area con-taining a number of geological heritage sites of particular importance, rarity or aesthetic appeal. These Earth heritage sites are part of an integrated concept of protection, education and sustainable development.”
Despite weak understanding even among the officials who promulgated Geopark-related laws, GGN aspires to be a community-led and grassroots network. The model of protection across the Asia-Pacific, however, is top-down and government-led.
▲ Jeju Island's Geopark sites. Courtesy of Global Geoparks Network
“[N]ot many people really understand Geoparks ... [Korea] created the Geopark law and they now have the Geopark committee, but ... when Geopark becomes a government entity based on law it is completely top down [and] you have to adhere to this type of law ... But the rest, Geopark is not there,” he said.
“Geopark is about nature [and] the principle is bottom up. [T]he more community involvement and ... empow-erment it will be ... self-custodian. When a majority of the community look after it ... then nobody can destroy it or use it for their own benefit,” said Komoo.
Jeju received Geopark status on Oct. 4, 2010, in Lesbos, Greece and thus became the only place on the planet to hold the three UNESCO accolades of Global Geopark, Man and the Biosphere Reserve (MAB) and World Natural Heritage. The nine representative Geopark sites across the island are: Mt. Halla, Mt. Sanbangsan, Yongmeori Coast, Suwolbong, Jeju Jungmun Daepo Coast, Seogwipo Formation, Cheonjiyeon Falls, Seongsan Ilchulbong, and Manjang Cave.
With such riches, Komoo sees Jeju as a future GGN and APGN leader; there needs, however, to be fundamental changes in how Geoparks are conceived. Korea is still hampered by a legalistic view of conservation, hindering community engagement. Japan and China, meanwhile, engage much more intimately at the grassroots level.
▲ Suwolbong shows off its geological riches Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
“In terms of real growth of Geoparks and networking activity, it is basically China and Japan ... the triggering factor is the geological interest, particularly utilising geological resources for tourism, but as Geoparks grow they realise that it's not just geology. Without the support of the local community ... the geopark will not happen, so they start having to network among them.”
Komoo states that in China the state leads but community groups emerge to engage with the network. This contrasts with Japan where there is little govern-ment involvement and groups of “Geoparkians” and scientists initiate the projects.
The Geopark concept was born in Europe through community activism and Komoo feels that top-down control leads to discord with communities.
“Local community participation and community development are the main reasons behind Geoparks. We know that [completely bottom-up approaches] will not happen in the Asia Pacific because ... our culture is not like that, it requires a balance between middle society and civil society.”
▲ A goelogical map of Mt. Halla. Courtesy of Global Geoparks Network
Beyond conservation, APGN also supports economic development with communities leading geotourism activities, similar to ecotourism. Komoo sees great potential in this area, but currently merely sees, “an extension of traditional tourism” rather than a deep appreciation of “the feeling of fragility, how important the history of the earth is ... and how it relates to our heritage.” He laments: “We are still at the beginning.”
There is, however, a shift in “the thinking around tourism” as authorities seek to use Geopark status as a way of “living with mass tourism.” Again, com-munity engagement is key.
“The threat has always been govern-ment control ... meaning the people around government that want to take opportunities. Balancing between gov-ernment involvement and community empowerment is the way forward.”
On Jeju this means engagement and consultation with communities.
“I believe the way forward is by having many small local projects ... like Geopark food, or cooperatives between local people and ... I think Geopark can become much better. In Geoparks ... we are talking about how that conservation area can be used for promoting economic development.”
For Komoo, the fusion of development and conservation is an art, as well as a science. Jeju’s rich heritage of basaltic rock should allow it to emerge as a leading Geopark site, drawing from its culture. While this potential has yet to be realised, he looks ahead with optimism.
“The tradition and culture in Jeju is built on the basaltic rock, but that connection is not there yet. We really need a good interpretation ... meaning the process of formation is closely related to the culture ...because it is part and parcel of the long history of human life, as well as earth.”
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