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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Upo Wetlands English Camp 2011: Context

After all these discussions about alternatives to school, I feel like now's a good time to post something I've been sitting on for about two months. Way back in December, a friend I met WWOOFing put me in touch with a woman, Sunny, who works as a wetlands conservationist and homeschool teacher in Busan. As if that weren't cool enough, she also speaks English perfectly and has a Master's in linguistics. Needless to say, the moment I met her, I knew she had something to teach me.

She told me about an old man, a retired school teacher name Mr. Lee - or "Grandpa Egret" if you'd like - who lives in the Upo Wetlands and is concerned about the tensions and conflicts between the locals, who have been fishing int the wetlands for generations and want to continue to do so; environmentalists, who want to protect both the land and the migratory birds it hosts every year; and the government, which, since it controls the dams (which control the water levels, which control the number and kinds of fish and birds in the region), has to act as an arbiter between them, deciding which group's interests are more important for the region.

The situation is complex, and to be honest I didn't ask about it as much as I should have (mostly because I was nervous about trying to do some real teaching, but I'll get to that later.) What I understand, though, is that President Lee's pet project, called "Four Great Rivers," - the goal of which is to build canals joining together some of Korea's largest waterways, thus allowing goods to be moved back and forth between Seoul, Busan, and everywhere in between, without increasing stress on the already-congested highway system - is having disastrous effects on the environment. The project requires building dams, rerouting streams, and, dredging out and deepening river beds, all of which interfere with natural water- and eco-systems. As water is harnessed so that humans and industry can use it, it's routed away from comparatively "useless" places like wetlands, which dry out, shrink up, and finally disappear. On top of that, deepening a river affects the speed of the water - recently, a dam broke due to the additional pressure, leaving the city of Gumi without water for four days - which determines both how the water interacts with the river banks and what sort of animals can live there.

In particular, Sunny and Grandpa Egret told me about birds: the combination of the Pan Korea Grand Waterway (as the project is known in English); standard industrialization and urbanization, which pollute water; and wetlands-reclamation projects like Saemangeum, leave migratory birds with fewer places to stay on their trip from Sibera to wherever it is they go down South. When the birds, left with few other options, congregate at higher densities, they wind up consuming so much of the aquatic life - whether animal, vegetable, or in between - that the ecosystem doesn't have a chance to regenerate to full capacity between when the birds leave and when they return again. After a few years like this, wetlands once teeming with life simply die (Silent Spring hits home here, too), leaving the birds with even fewer places to go, forcing them into even denser patterns of movement and overconsumption, and so on.

Thus, environmentalists pushed for the Upo Wetlands, which plays temporary home to a wide variety of migratory species, to become a protected area, a refuge for birds who have to fly further each day this year than they did last year, and will likely have to fly even further each year than the previous one in the foreseeable future. While the protective policies put in place, which include restricted access to the wetlands and bans on outsiders fishing for leisure, are probably good for the locals who have been fishing in Upo for generations, they also cause some problems. After all, as the cost of living goes up, and as it becomes impossible to provide directly for oneself those things that society presents to us as necessities - cars, computers, electronics - fishermen have two choices: try to remain content with whatever relatively low level of consumption their work permits them, or catch and sell more fish and keep up with the Joneses. Even if the fisherman is a hermit like me, chances are that his wife, children, and other forms of social pressure and shaming will all but force him to take the latter path.

So, how can the fisherman fish more? Having lived in Upo for generations, the fisherman know, more or less, what level of fishing is sustainable; they've probably been fishing at just about that level for generations. The only way to increase intake without compromising the long-term viability of the environment is...to change the environment. This means asking the government to open up dams, which will bring deeper water, and more and bigger fish.

Sounds good, except for two things. First, diverting the water from other sources, and even building the dams in question in the first place, has probably already adversely affected other wetlands, somewhere, meaning that the whole thing may just be a zero-sum game. Second, more water - oddly enough - means less* wetlands, since the area will come more and more to resemble a lake. The birds that come to Upo, though, don't need lakes. They're evolved to thrive in shallow waters - perhaps because they need to lay their eggs close to water, perhaps because of dietary preferences and limitations, or perhaps because of some other reason. In any case, wetlands birds like wetlands, and if Upo become a lake, the birds will go elsewhere, further exacerbating the problems I've already mentioned.

What's the answer here? Both groups have legitimate claims - fisherman need to protect their own livelihood, and environmentalists need to protect the land and animals that can't protect themselves (and, because we depend on the ecosystem, this amounts to protecting us, too). It's not exactly right to say that there is no one answer, since, clearly, there are things that the government can do that are good for everyone (including the animals), and things that aren't good for anyone. However, it is fair to say that no one decision will solve the problem. As long as there are fishermen, birds, and governments, this tension will persist.

Thus, what Upo needs - what all of us need, everywhere - is not only intelligent decision-making from those in power, but people who are knowledgeable about and who feel they have a stake in the health of their environment. Only if people like this exist, speak out, and act, is there any possibility that the conflict will be, if not resolved, then at least navigated successfully. The dedication that allows one to do this, though, seems to me to have only two sources: love and pain. Pain at seeing the land, plants, and animals you love vanishing; loving them so much that, rather than turning away from the pain, you acknowledge it and do what you can to stop it at the source.

So, how do you find or make or mold people like this? In our age of flashy fashion, manic cartoons, and portable entertainment, how do you convince people that the call of a bird and the scent of a pine needle are worth paying attention to, worth caring about, worth being willing to feel pain for? I have read that children in indigenous communities who grow up with a TV in the house find it easier to identify Disney characters than indigenous plants.** Certainly, most children (as I myself once did) would prefer an hour of Nintendo to an hour of bird watching. Overcoming these tendencies in ourselves is hard enough; how can we hope to do it in the young, too?

Grandpa Egret has an idea. And asked me for help. Knowing what I know, how could I refuse?


*Or "fewer?" What do you think, is wetlands a countable noun? Just in general, or in this sentence, too?

**Try it yourself - look out your window and name the first ten plants you see. And ones you planted or bought don't coun't. To make it harder - by which I mean, more realistic, more revealing of the knowledge we've lost - name things you can do with those plants, other than look at them or burn them for heat. Now, name five characters from your favorite TV show. Heck, I bet you can even name five characters from a TV show you hate. I haven't watched Frasier in ten years, but I still know that his brother's name is Niles, his dad's name is Martin, and that HIS DOG'S NAME IS EDDIE. Am I right or Am I right? WTF.


Grandpa Donkey said...

Don't leave me hanging!

Andy said...

Cliff-hanger of the decade.

One thing you said really struck me, and probably is/could be the subject of books, "...and environmentalists need to protect the land and animals that can't protect themselves (and, because we depend on the ecosystem, this amounts to protecting us, too)."

How absurd is it that the only people who care about whether or not we destroy the planet are labeled environmentalists, and often viewed as a little crazy? As you mentioned in your parenthetical comment, it is about much more than protecting plants and animals, it is protecting the way we have lived for thousands of years. How is it that the general population doesn't get it? Even more confounding is very smart people in politics actively campaigning against protecting the environment. WTF are they thinking?

Kristin said...

There are environmental conflict resolution practitioners around the world working on these very issues!!! I bet you could find a group in S. Korea to facilitate a collaborative resolution process. If I come across any relevant readings in my program I'll send them your way too.

Abbia speranza, Michele!