Designing for Hope: May 13th, Hwaseong City

Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea

In September 2018, local people, NGOs, scientists and Hwaseong City held a major symposium, the Great Flight of Shorebirds. Evidence was presented of the local, national and international importance of the Hwaseong Wetlands to peoples’ livelihoods and to migratory birds.  All participants agreed on the need to conserve the Hwaseong Wetlands in order to maintain biodiversity (that poorly-understood cover-all word for ALL LIFE on EARTH); to support fisher folk and farmers; and to help improve the quality of life of everybody in Hwaseong.   And three months later, to applause from specialists across Asia and Australasia, Hwaseong City then took the bold step to designate the Hwaseong Wetlands as a Flyway Network Site and made a public commitment to conserve the wetland.

The Hwaseong Wetlands: designated as an EAAFP Flyway Site, December 2018 © Nial Moores

Now, we need to take this process forward.  We need to agree what the word “conservation” of this particular area means; and we need to work together to achieve it. Together, we need to develop a plan that can be used to help guide future management and land-use decisions. In the best case, this should be a plan that is based on the input of local people and on science; a plan that can help with the sustainable development not only of the Hwaseong Wetland, but of Hwaseong City too.

Screenshot of the Hwaseong Wetlands Site Information Sheet. The full document can be downloaded here:
The months following the Great Flight of Shorebirds Symposium have been filled with much work – some behind-the-scenes , other more public. Initiatives for helping to conserve this site and “to take things to the next stage” include: completing and submitting the Site Information Sheet for the wetland (top) at the invitation of the EAAFP (work done by Birds Korea, Hwaseong KFEM and Hwaseong City); meetings (second from top , © Nial Moores ) to build consensus, including one organised by KFEM’s Kim Choony (on right), Hwaseong KFEM’s Jung Hanchul and National Assembly Woman (Song Ok Ju on left), which invited farmers and fisherfolk to share their concerns and ideas; a visit by the EAAFP Secretariat to the wetland, led by the dearly-missed Dr Lew Young at centre (© EAAFP) ; and (bottom) start of work on a proposal for zoning and use of the area by students at University of California, Berkeley through early 2019, in collaboration with Hwaseong KFEM, National KFEM and Birds Korea © The Students.

There is some experience of developing conservation plans here in Korea, for example at Suncheon Bay which is now famous for wintering Hooded Cranes.  Thanks to the efforts of farmers and local people, roads are blocked off in winter to reduce disturbance to the cranes; grain is provided for the birds; and many of the farmers farm organically.  This has helped the number of cranes and tourists to increase. However, much of the area around Suncheon Bay has become increasingly degraded – and concentration of the birds through artificial feeding is both unsustainable and also potentially exposes the birds to a higher risk of disease. Importantly too, the data also show us that the numbers of many tidal flat dependent waterbirds in Suncheon Bay have declined. 

This is important, because birds are honest bio-indicators of ecosystem health. Their presence or absence, abundance or rarity – when interpreted honestly – help show us whether our use of the land and sea is sustainable or not, either at a single site or globally. And rapid declines in bird populations – like climate change and worsening air pollution – in Korea and throughout the world indicate that the present development approach is unsustainable. We are destroying the future.

All who have read this far already know: The climate is changing to the worse for most species. Our species’ population and rates of consumption continue to increase, putting more than a million species at risk of global extinction in the coming decades according to the United Nations.  Abundance of life and the resilience of ecosystems are in decline. Fish populations are already much reduced, with a third of “marine fish stocks being harvested at an unsustainable rate”; insect populations, including economically valuable pollinators, are disappearing; and yet we continue to reclaim wetlands; to cut down forests; to rip up vegetation to make places look “neat”; to spray pesticides and herbicides and insecticides – poisons all – into the environment; and to burn and throw away our waste with little reflection. Genuinely bold solutions are needed. That is why China is now starting to embrace a new kind of development model, “Eco-Civilization” and why the UK has this month declared a climate change emergency.

The Hwaseong Wetlands form a complex ecosystem that provide us and other species with vital resources.  Vegetated tidal flats provide habitat and absorb carbon from the sea and sky at many times the rate of forests; they help sustain fisheries; and they directly support the food needs of people and of shorebirds. The Hwaseong Wetlands also include a reclamation lake and farm land, also depended on by a multitude of species: from human, to bird, to frog and fish, to insect and plants, to fungi and worms.

How to maintain and over time to increase the values of these different habitats, to conserve species, maintain ecosystem functions and provide good livelihoods for people?  While every place is unique, scientific knowledge that has been built up over decades in other places around the world can be shared and adapted.  And many costly mistakes in planning and management can be avoided by learning from the successes and failures of others – whether in China, the UK or the USA.

This is why people with lifetimes of experience of fishing, farming, planning, and managing wetlands on three different continents will meet together in Hwaseong this week, with two days of field events and meetings on May 11th and 12th followed by a major international symposium on May 13th, supported by Hwaseong City and arranged and coordinated by KFEM Deputy-Secretary General Kim Choony and colleagues, Hwaseong KFEM and Birds Korea.

On May 13th, the Key Note speech on “Ecological Civilization and Wetland Conservation” will be presented by Professor Lei Guangchun, Dean of the School of Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University and one of the most influential conservation scientists in Asia. When the need to conserve wetlands is accepted as a core component of sustainable development, appropriate plans and actions can be taken at a range of scales. Presenters therefore include Ms Lizzie Bruce of the UK’s RSPB and Ms Katherine Leung, Director of Kalidris Ecological Engineering Limited, Shanghai , who will present on both long-term and day-to-day management and work at Titchwell and Snettisham RSPB reserves in the UK and at Mai Po in Hong Kong and Chongmin Dongtan Nature Reserve near Shanghai.

Lizzie Bruce at work © Lizzie Bruce / RSPB: wetland management requires a range of skills and the sharing of experience and knowledge
Katherine Leung conducting an education program for children at Mai Po Nature Reserve © Katherine Leung / WWF Mai Po. CEPA programs are often a key component of reserves near to urban centres – in the best case helping visitors to change their attitudes toward wetlands and increasing their sense of personal responsibility for sustainability.

This will be followed by the “reveal” of a proposed plan for the Hwaseong Wetlands that has for the past few months been developed by graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley and then by leading experts in SAVE, through an active collaboration with local stakeholders and Hwaseong KFEM, National KFEM and Birds Korea.

Some of the wonderful SAVE team at work on the Hwaseong Wetlands, April 2019 © SAVE

We will also hear the experiences of those working to conserve Junam Reservoir in Changwon; and fisherfolk who have been fighting to conserve the west coast tidal flats of Garolim Bay: nature’s bank.

Through the sharing of stories and experiences like these, our aim is that all of us will be able to see the future of the Hwaseong Wetlands and of Korea a little more clearly. Truly, a shared vision founded on ecological realities and local knowledge is essential if we are to start to nurture a more sustainable and prosperous future – a future full of life and of hope.

Saemangeum in 2006 © Jan van de Kam / Birds Korea

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