Wen Bo is chair of the China Advisory Board of the Global Greengrants Fund.

Monday, 22 Apr 2002

SEOUL, South Korea

Korea has always drawn me like a magnet, so this year, I chose to come to Seoul to take part in the Korean Earth Day celebrations.

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Arriving at Gwanghwamun on Sunday morning, I saw traffic police start to block off the Sejong road, where the main event was to be held. The river of cars quickly dwindled to a trickle and then disappeared altogether, marking the first time I ever saw the Sejong road free from traffic.

And then the greens took over: Roller skaters and cyclists poured in, as did dancers and drummers wearing traditional Korean outfits. Banners bearing slogans such as “Protecting our home” lined the sidewalks, and the streets were full of creative sculptures; I saw one of a tree growing from a car. It didn’t take me very long to use up my first roll of film.

While I watched, over 15 Korean environmental groups gathered and set up booths to promote their messages. Green Future organized a drum circle, with most of the instruments made from recycled boxes and cans. Green Korea put up an animated figure of a frog to highlight the importance of nature conservation.

Most of the Korean groups that were getting ready for the celebration were already familiar to me from my days as a graduate student in Seoul. (As a result, I ran into several old friends during the day, a nice surprise for me and them.) Korea is known throughout Asia for its radical and dynamic environmental movement. Although small compared to many Asian countries, Korea is home to the continent’s largest environmental organization, the Korean Federation for the Environmental Movement.

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One of the main attractions of the Korean Earth Day celebrations was the stage show. Dressed in costumes made from compact disks and electrical wires, the actors performed a piece about the mechanized future of human society and the importance of remembering our roots and our interconnectedness with all other beings on Earth.

April is a warm season in Seoul, and Sunday was a sunny day. But if anything, the heat and the bright sunshine seemed to enhance everyone’s enthusiasm. By the afternoon, students were gathering to march along the Sejong road. Behind the Earth Day Network banner, about 2,000 people waving placards and flags showed their commitment to our global environment. It was a very special moment, one that reminded me of the first Earth Day project in the U.S, and I couldn’t help but ask myself: When will we have an event like this in China?

Tuesday, 23 Apr 2002

SEOUL, South Korea

Last night, after the conclusion of the Earth Day celebrations, I was invited to join a party at the Korean Federation for the Environmental Movement. The party was being held in honor of over 20 Japanese environmental lawyers who came to Korea to visit wetlands and help promote wetlands conservation legislation in Japan.

Kim Kyung Won, coordinator of the Korean Wetlands Alliance, took the Japanese delegation to visit Saemangum, the largest wetlands in Korea and one that national environmental groups have long fought to preserve. In 1996, the Korean government initiated the Saemangum Reclamation Project, a $2.4-million plan to reclaim nearly 100,000 acres of tidal flats by building a 20-mile seawall for agriculture and industry. The wetland provides habitat for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, including the endangered Saunders’ gull, black-faced spoonbill, and three species of crane.

I got to know Kyung Won a couple of years ago at a meeting to oppose the Dong River Dam. At that time, he told me of his interest in Saunders’ gull. Coincidentally Global Greengrants Fund had just offered two grants to a Chinese group, the Panjin Saunders’ Gull Conservation Society, to support its Saunders’ gull and wetlands conservation projects.

Kyung Won wanted to come to China to exam Saunders’ gull breeding sites, and the Chinese group wanted to come to Korea to visit the gull’s wintering sites. Both parties understood the necessity not just of conserving biodiversity in their own countries but also of working together to protect the bird internationally.

When Korean, Chinese, and Japanese delegates meet to discuss environmental issues, talks often break down quickly. Typically, Korea and Japan blame China for the problems in Northeast Asia, which range from acid rain to sand storms and transboundary air pollution, and China defends itself by pointing to the harsh realities of balancing environmental and human needs in a developing nation with a massive population. Such meetings frequently end with complaints and seldom with any concrete advancements.

When Kyung Won and I met, we saw an opportunity to break this cycle by uniting over our common interest in protecting birds. Our vision was that conservationists from the three countries would first work together on smaller issues where it would be easier to achieve success — issues such as migratory bird conservation. Working together on these issues would help develop friendship, trust, and mechanisms of cooperation that would enable the participants to later tackle larger issues such as acid rain and fishery conflicts.

Based on this vision, Kyung Won and I organized the first Korea-China Saunders’ Gull conservation exchange program. In the spring of 2001, four bird conservationists from China came to Korea and traveled to gull hotspots with several of their Korean colleagues. Efforts such as these, by grassroots environmentalists like Kyung Won, have greatly promoted cooperation among China, Korea, and Japan, and promise to lead to genuine eco-peace in Northeast Asia.

Wednesday, 24 Apr 2002

SEOUL, South Korea

I began my day by buying a Korean Times on the street and looking for news about this week’s Earth Day events. Instead, I found an announcement for an Ocean Seminar being held as part of the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Ocean-Related Ministerial Meeting. As I’ve often covered marine conservation in China for my work as a journalist, I decided to attend the seminar.

After almost an hour and a half on the subway, I got to the hotel where the conference was being held and made my way to the front desk. One of the conference organizers, Mi Young Lee, welcomed me and walked me past photos and information about marine issues in Korea and into the meeting venue.

I was particularly interested in attending this meeting because I am currently working with another NGO, Pacific Environment, to plan a marine workshop in the Chinese city of Dalian in October. We would very much like Korea to be represented at the workshop. Because Korea and China share the Yellow Sea, the two nations must jointly address several ocean-related environmental concerns, including fishery conservation, red tides, marine pollution, and endangered marine species.

After the meeting was over, I met with Sierra James of Earth Day Network and members of the Korean Green Consumers Network. GCN helped coordinate Korean Earth Day, so we wanted to offer farewells and thank-yous to the group, and particularly to Hae Young and Cho Yoon-Mi. Hae Young, who is a pharmacist by day and a GCN volunteer by night — and a passionate environmentalist at all times of the day — translated Sierra’s speech at the Korean Earth Day ceremony.

Later, after dinner, we went to another farewell-and-thank-you party — this one held by the Korean Federation for the Environmental Movement in honor of Sierra. Sierra took the opportunity to share some of the wonderful photos she took in Korea. We were all amazed by how powerful the images were. One photo featured Sierra sitting in the middle of the road and blocking traffic — truly living up to her title as global car-free campaign coordinator.

The presence of Sierra and Earth Day Network in Korea really gave a strong boost to the country’s environmental movement. Her solidarity has been inspiring, and as she leaves today, we all wish her a safe and pleasant journey. Bon Voyage!

Thursday, 25 Apr 2002

SEOUL, South Korea

Green Future’s office has moved. Today I went to see the new office, which is full of books and reports and staffed with dedicated people.† While discussing various issues with executive director Lee Sang Hun, I was told that one of the other staff members, Lee Yong Rye, is organizing a Northeast Asia Atmospheric Network conference in July.

The NEAAN initiative started in 1995 under the auspices of the environmental wing of the Citizen’s Coalition for Economic Justice. The founder of CCEJ, Youn Jae-hyun, is now chairman of Green Future, and the environmental wing evolved into the Citizen’s Movement for Environmental Justice.

In 1995, I was still a student at the China School of Journalism; in my free time, I volunteered at the Green Weekly of Beijing’s Science and Technology Daily. That was when I first made contact with Korea by calling Jina Lee, then a director of the environmental desk of CCEJ and organizer of the first NEAAN conference.

Time flies. I never imagined then that I would get to meet the people I’d talked to on the phone and be so involved with Korean environmental groups. After all, back then, it had only been two years since China and South Korea, two former Cold War foes, had normalized their relations. Shortly thereafter, China started to accept Korean students; today, more international students in China come from Korea than from any other nation.

The new office of Green Future is not far from my graduate school alma mater, KDI School of Public Policy and Management, so I made a detour to visit my old stomping grounds. I saw some friends who still work there as staff, and ran into a Chinese student, Li Qun, who asked me to join her for dinner with another Chinese friend, Li Ju Qian, who works at Korea University. Li had a scholarship to research social and environmental safeguards pertaining to China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

Despite my initial skepticism, Li convinced me that it made sense to study China’s entry into the WTO from Korea — instead of from China, which at first seemed more logical to me. Li pointed out that studying and conducting research in other nations is good for the individual students, for the country as a whole, and for international understanding. People naturally develop greater insight into and passion for foreign countries in which they live, and these exchanges can assist in creating positive international relations.

Li is right. Without studying here, I probably would have never gotten to know Korea. Given the 40 years of chilly relations between China and South Korea that followed the Korean War, the two neighbors have a lot to catch up on, so every single positive interchange counts. That’s true not only of these two nations, but in fact of all the nations of the world, whose people — all of us — dream of a green and peaceful world.

Friday, 26 Apr 2002

SEOUL, South Korea

In addition to attending Earth Day events, the other purpose of my trip to Korea was to conduct more research for my book, Eco-Women of Korea, which will be published in China and hopefully inspire Chinese women. Among the†activists on my radar screen is Shim Suk-kyung of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Korean National Commission, and today I had the pleasure of meeting with her.

I first got to know Suk-kyung at a World Conservation Union Conference on Protected Areas in East Asia. She made a presentation on UNESCO’s efforts to protect the area through its “Man and Biosphere” program. We met for a second time when I formed part of a Chinese nonprofit delegation that visited her office to learn about the work of the National Commission. It was at that time that I learned that Suk-kyung was the initiator of the Northeast Asia Eco-Peace Network, which aims to promote ecological cooperation in the Northeast Aisa region.

I attended the second Northeast Asia Eco-Peace Conference in Yanbian, China, and today we discussed the third conference, which will be held at the end of this year. Because Korea is the geographical center of Northeast Asia, the country has begun to play a more important role in promoting multilateral cooperation on environmental issues.

Upon leaving, Suk-kyung gave me some Korean-language reports on wildlife in Korea. I’ll definitely need to brush up on my Korean in order to read them!

While heading back toward my hotel, I came across an exhibit on the Korean National Soccer Team. As a person born in Dalian, China’s City of Soccer, I instinctively wandered into the exhibition hall. What struck me most was a display of a soccer ball made from a long rope of dry straw. This ball was what the parent generation of the current Korean national soccer team played with in Korean villages when they were children.

Since then, Korea has undergone a sea change. Today’s generation of Korean youth are growing up in a society far different from that of their parents and grandparents. For them, a soccer ball made from a rolled-up straw rope is unimaginable. And it is probably even harder for them to imagine the day-to-day life of the generations before them — before consumerism took hold of Korean society.

Korea badly needs a wake-up call from that rising consumerism, which poses serious threats to the ecological health of the entire region. Koreans’ daily per capita water consumption is the highest in the world. And its hunger for timber products is draining the forest resources of Russia, China, and Southeast Asia.

In an era when it is trendy for young Koreans to follow Japanese and American consumption patterns, people like Park Sunyoung offer a beacon of hope. Sunyoung is a graduate student at Kyunghee University and is studying environmental nonprofits in China. Her commitment to the environmental movement is inspiring. We met late this afternoon, together with Sunyuong’s former boss, Youn Jae-hyun.

Both Sunyoung and Jae-hyun have started to learn Chinese. As China’s economic status has improved, the Chinese language, regarded as a threat to national security during President Park Chung-hee’s military rule in the 1950s and ’60s, has again gained popularity in Korea.

The dominance of the language is just one of the ways China is starting to change the region, and the world, in good ways and bad. Tomorrow I will fly back there to continue the fight to save our nation’s dwindling and damaged natural environment. As the largest country in the world, with one-fourth of the global population, we owe it to ourselves and to all people everywhere to step lightly on the Earth.

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