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.