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Jeju haenyeo and UNESCOGovernment will seek recognition for Jeju's women divers
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승인 2014.01.13  11:20:55
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▲ Photo by Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of Moon Tides: Jeju Grannies of the Sea (2011)

What would UNESCO recognition mean to Jeju haenyeo?

Jeju government has recently announced it will formally seek UNESCO designation for the cultural practices of Jeju haenyeo (freediving women). In consideration of the island's various other recognitions by the UN agency, one may be forgiven for mistakenly viewing this as mere accolade-seeking.

One would, however, be quite wrong.

In addition to Jeju's UNESCO recognitions of natural science, in the categories of Biosphere (2002), World Natural Heritage (2007), and Global Geoparks (2010), the island received intangible cultural heritage designation (2009) for the Chilmeoridang Yeongdeung-gut, a shamanist ritual to a local sea and wind goddess who protects both divers and fishers. Parties involved in the application process initially considered seeking status for the comprehensive haenyeo culture, ultimately deciding to begin more simply with the corresponding ritual.

UNESCO, which does not often approve entire cultural practices, requires that the practice be (1) simultaneously traditional, contemporary and living; (2) inclusive (intergenerational transmission, evolved in response to environment, contributes to a sense of identity and continuity, and also to social cohesion); (3) representative; and, (4) community-based. They must integrate such elements as skills, knowledge, cultural spaces, instruments and costumes, songs, and rituals.

Examples of prior cultural designations include compagnonnage (style of apprenticeship in France), sankemon (collective fishing rite in Mali), suiti (cultural space in Latvia), daemokjang (architectural style and woodworking profession of Korea), and falconry (11 countries, including Korea).

Jeju efforts toward this designation are longstanding. Annual academic symposia were held from 2006 to 2010, the themes of which were 'Anti-Japanese Resistance, Cultural Heritage, Ocean Civilization' (2006), 'Sustainable Development; Safeguarding of Work and Heritage' (2007), 'Haenyeo and Ama [divers in Japan]: Intangible Cultural Heritage' (2008), 'UNESCO Representative List; Safeguarding Measures' (2009) and 'Issues, Prospects of Cultural Transmission' (2010).

The 2009 symposium saw the participation of Professor William Logan of Deakin University (AU), International Expert for UNESCO since 1986, who spoke eloquently on the value of Jeju haenyeo.

In 2011, Jeju government formed a committee for the preservation of haenyeo culture, headed by the vice governor of economy and environment with Provincial Council member Lee Sunhwa as assistant chief. At its formation, they were charged with a 5-year plan toward UNESCO designation.

Lee, who organized two forums that same year on the topic of haenyeo preservation and UNESCO recognition, has become a primary champion of this cause. From a long line of haenyeo, Lee views her efforts in relation to women's empowerment and the elevation of haenyeo from a once-lowly position in Jeju society to one of great respect and international renown.

Jeju then hosted the IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) in September of 2012, at which a session on Jeju haenyeo was presented. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature formally adopted a resolution for the preservation of Jeju haenyeo.

That same year, Jeju haenyeo received 'intangible cultural heritage' status at the national level.

The timetable for UNESCO application has recently been stepped up, in large part due to an unofficial competition between Korea and Japan, which also seeks such recognition for its 'ama' diving women. In November 2013, Korean National Assembly member Gil Jungwoo called a public hearing for national support of Jeju's endeavor.

On December 20, Jeju government formally committed to a 2014 prioritization of this effort, signing a relevant MOU just four days later with the Korean National Commission for UNESCO. According to the UNESCO-established timetable, Korea's Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), with the support of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific (ICHCAP), will apply by March of 2014 toward a 2015 inscription.

This MOU is particularly significant as a nation is permitted only one ICH application per year, and the CHA has several other cultural attributes in line; nevertheless, the government agency has now identified Jeju haenyeo as its next ICH application.

Japan, meanwhile, has organized an assembly of 8 prefectures with active 'ama' communities, notably those of Mie and Ishikawa with which Jeju haenyeo maintain cultural exchange; while they have vowed to apply jointly for both Korean and Japanese divers, suspicion to the contrary runs deep, and Korea will file separately.

Jeju generally maintains a belief that 'ama' represent migratory or 'chulga' haenyeo, who also are known to have migrated to mainland Korea, China, parts of Southeast Asia, and even Vladivostok, Russia.

▲ Photo by Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of Moon Tides: Jeju Grannies of the Sea (2011)

One question looms large: What would such designation mean to Jeju haenyeo themselves? And, are they being involved in this process?

A recent cultural event organized by Lee celebrated Jeju haenyeo in light of UNESCO recognition. One chief of her fishing and diving cooperative, Hong Kyung-ja of Hansu Village, has long been involved in this cause. Other haenyeo have expressed their strong desire for such international recognition. One cannot help but see the psychological benefits to women who, while long the driving force of Jeju economy, were nevertheless perceived as low-level, uneducated manual laborers who bared their bodies indiscreetly in order to go about their work.

Of greatest concern is the preservation of haenyeo culture, which has been in serious decline since the 1970s due to the advent of tourism as an economic driver coupled with greater educational and professional opportunities for women. Without renewed intergenerational transmission, the diving practice with its unique cultural features is certain to become extinct.

Such recognition, however, by bringing greater esteem to the practice, may in fact attract a younger generation to the profession. It would also result in more tangible benefit such as additional funding for the support of the haenyeo community, to be used for safeguarding and other measures. UNESCO itself cites other benefits such as increased visibility of cultural diversity, resource management, education, and revitalization.

Terms such as 'eco-feminism', 'deep ecology', and 'Asian Amazons' have been variously applied to Jeju haenyeo. At the 2012 WCC, renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle identified the haenyeo as 'indigenous marine biologists', and 'marine stewards' has also been suggested. The organizational structure of divers and fishers, known as 'eocheongye', has been considered a viable model of collective economics. Haenyeo practices have also been deemed 'indigenous social enterprise'. All of these identifications are worthy of additional exploration.

Above all: the most viable and sustainable form of cultural preservation is that which renders traditional practice relevant to the modern era. UNESCO status may well contribute to this quest.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York, now living on Jeju Island.

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