Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea, September 21, 2023.
All images copyright of Nial Moores / Birds Korea.
In September, the “Spoonbills Project” was launched in the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve. This ecological planning and design project is a collaboration under-contract from Yeoncheon County led jointly by Birds Korea and Birds Korea Yeoncheon, Yeoncheon County and the University of California Berkeley. The project will run until the end of 2024 (or beyond…). The aim is to produce a vision document that can be produced from and used to support a democratic, participatory planning process in Yeoncheon County and the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve. The initial focus is a 40 ha site on the Hantan River (the “spoonbills project” site); and development of similar approaches that can be used at multiple points along the Imjin River.
This month, this project has already included a school visit from Seoul Foreign School and time spent with local teachers involved in the bioblitz program; a visit by an artist from Canada; the hosting of two professors in landscape design from University of California Berkeley (Professor Emeritus Randy Hester and Professor Matt Kondolf) and a team from Tokyo Institute of Technology, comprised of Professor Dohi Masato and two grad students who are part of Team Spoon; a site-meeting and coffee-shop meeting to discuss the project with additional members; and two seminars in the Yeoncheon County office.
The “Spoonbills project” is a natural extension of our existing work in Yeoncheon, which from 2021-2023 has included survey work (including of cranes, Scaly-sided Merganser and Fairy Pitta), an educational bioblitz project, and deepening engagement with the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.
The “Spoonbills project” aims to use all available research to inform ecological design and plan proposals; and through the process to raise awareness of ways in which the wonderfully important biodiversity of the County can be conserved, while simultaneously improving opportunities for conservation tourism and environmental education (and reducing pollution by allowing the river to be a river…). The “spoonbills project” can become a leading example of sustainable development, as defined by the SDGs.
Because there are so many moving parts, the following post aims to explain some of the key components since the contract was finalised earlier this month. These are provided as part of the documentation of this fascinating project, and also to ask for your support. In the year ahead, work will include many, many more meetings, including we intend with many local residents; more seminars; and several months of coursework by UCB students who will be tasked with helping to create a vision statement for consideration by Yeoncheon County and relevant government bodies.
In addition to looking for more input from ecologists and hydrologists and local community leaders and educators (please contact us!), the great scope and complexity of this work make clear that we really also need someone with up-to-date administrative skills.
If you know of someone who would be willing to volunteer or work for Birds Korea on administrative issues or on accounting, for a part-time salary or perhaps for a percentage of contracts (?), please do let us know. Similarly, if you have ideas on fund-raising or on sources of donations so that we can strengthen our work in Yeoncheon and elsewhere in Korea, please, please do let us know. Thank you so much!
Some more context…
When people look at any landscape, their personal view will evoke personal memories. To some people, based on their past experiences, a beautiful stretch of river for example might look like the perfect place to fish and set nets; to others, it is might be the place to construct a new café or hotel or to go swimming or to paddle in a kayak or to sit peacefully reading a book; to others still it might simply be a place to hike or cycle through quickly – a scenic backdrop to a journey between a start and end point.
For those of us working to conserve biodiversity and ecological functionality, our view will likely be most influenced by the species that are found there (and by the species that are not) and by the “naturalness” of the processes we can see. If the river looks disturbed, and hard-banked and is species-poor, we too might think about moving on quickly; but if the river stretch contains natural-looking sand or gravel bars and holds special species, then our focus will soon shift towards those species, and a consideration of potential threats and conservation solutions.
Ecological designs and plans for in situ biodiversity conservation are in essence well-informed responses to the ecological requirements of target species and the ecosystems of which they are a component part, combined with a consideration of the most appropriate accommodation of other potential uses. Each assessment, if it is to be effective, needs to consider physical features of the site, current and past uses, and also the political opportunities available to decision-makers. Research and extensive collaboration are essential. No-one individual or organisation can come up with the best solutions by themselves. In addition to the ecological requirements of species, hydrology, engineering issues, legal aspects and of course the human dimension, all also need to be evaluated and planned for. Which stakeholders are most invested in the place? How do they use or want to use the area? And what are the political realities? Every day, political leaders have to consider development proposals relevant to their work portfolio. Why should they invest their time, energy and political capital into the conservation of this particular site or its biodiversity?
As a small bird and habitat conservation organization, our approach to every site or species always starts in the same way: research and an assessment of threats and conservation solutions. Typically, our work also includes the development of site-specific recommendations, designs or planning proposals presented in ways that can allow other NGOs, government bodies and national research institutions to incorporate them – if they so choose – into their own plans for fulfilling existing commitments to biodiversity and to the wider Sustainable Development Goals.
Yeoncheon County and the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve
In May-July 2020, under contract from Yeoncheon County, we confirmed the importance of an area of threatened forest to species that included the globally Vulnerable Fairy Pitta. This work then expanded in scope, with additional contracts to conduct research on birds (and other biodiversity) throughout the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve. During this research so far, we have already found more than 200 bird species, including an exceptional concentration of the globally Endangered Scaly-sided Merganser. Based on our research in the BR and nationally, we have been able to identify key river stretches used by the species and to assess major threats. We have also been able to estimate the disturbance distance at which Scaly-sided Mergansers stop feeding and eventually take flight from people. This enabled us to propose a series of measures aimed at reducing disturbance while also encouraging an increase in conservation tourism and public awareness in Yeoncheon; and also to develop a paper on the conservation status of the species on the Korean Peninsula which will be published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.
Unfortunately, however, the Republic of Korea currently ranks 78th in terms of biodiversity conservation in the global Environmental Performance Index. There is substantial development pressure on almost all lowland areas, including in Yeoncheon; and there is still little perceived political opportunity to be gained through imposing measures that might be considered restrictive in some way. Although well-received, our proposals have therefore so far failed to gain much traction. The Scaly-sided Merganser has become rather better known in the County, but threats to the species have continued to increase.
This is why the “Spoonbills Project” is needed.
The Spoonbills Project
The “Spoonbills Project” proposes creating a safe space within the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere (BR) for people to learn about biodiversity, the Biosphere Reserve and the Sustainable Development Goals.
The “Spoonbills Project” is comprised of four main interconnected strands:
1. Enhancement of an existing space, “Spoonbills” (40 ha area of the Hantan River and adjacent areas);
2. Restoration of riverine wetland, within part of the site;
3. Integration and replication of successful approaches at “Spoonbills” to other parts of the BR
4. Sharing of ecological planning and design concepts with other BRs and riverine wetlands in the ROK and regionally, with the aim of replication.
More of the history and rationale follows:
- In 2019, the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve (BR) was formally designated by UNESCO. The BR contains many sites of geological interest; and overlaps in many ways with the National Hantangang Geopark and Global Geopark (latter designated in 2020).
- Biosphere Reserves are designated because of a combination of high biodiversity values and the presence of human communities. They are required to become test sites for sustainable development,
- The Yeoncheon Imjin River BR has a Total Area of 58,412 ha (effectively all of Yeoncheon County excluding the DMZ); a Core Area of 6,369 ha; a Buffer Zone of 20,810 ha; and Transitional Areas of 31,233 ha. The current human population is approximately 42,000.
- The BR’s current human population is declining but might increase rapidly in the near-future following the opening of a subway line extension (likely to be in December 2023), and the construction of a new housing and industrial area. There is also a much larger number of people (~500,000 per year?) who visit Yeoncheon as tourists.
- The purpose of and suggested uses of Core Areas, Buffer Zones and Transitional Areas of Biosphere Reserves is described in UNESCO technical guidelines (2021). Some of the most relevant paragraphs in the Technical Guidelines to this project are: “76. (Core Areas are) legally protected sites for conserving biological diversity, monitoring minimally disturbed ecosystems, and undertaking non-destructive research and other low-impact uses (e.g. education)… Core areas are generally natural or near natural areas, or areas with a high level of biodiversity. They provide an example of what a specific ecosystem would look in the absence of – or with only minimal – human interference… 80. The focus of management in the core area is biodiversity conservation including through control of human activities….84. The buffer zone should surround or adjoin the core area(s) as a protective belt… The buffer zones should have clear boundaries and be large enough to mitigate human impact on the core area(s). 89. Management must ensure that all human activities in the buffer zone are compatible with biodiversity conservation …
- Core Areas of the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve are concentrated in the CCZ and along the Imjin and Hantan rivers (largely within the river bunds only).
- The 40 ha “Spoonbills Project” site is within the Core Area of the BR. It is situated in very close proximity to the largest centre of human population in the BR, Jeonkok town. The site is comprised of river and immediately adjacent habitats (shingle beds, managed parkland, some naturally regenerating wetland vegetation). It is overlooked by a commercially active area, with motels and coffee shops. The site itself even now supports nationally important species (including nesting nationally Vulnerable Long-billed Plover); but is currently highly disturbed, including by frequent construction activities. Some of the shingle banks and islands are artificially built and are hard-banked, and water from the Shincheon stream is largely controlled through a long “canal”. Moreover, the area appears to be valued poorly by local residents or by visitors to Yeoncheon.
- Birds Korea’s research has identified the international importance of several stretches of the Imjin River within the BR to the globally Endangered Scaly-sided Merganser (a very shy duck species, that usually flies away from people if they approach within 200m), and for other waterbirds and species of conservation concern.
- During our work, we immediately identified a lack of appropriate facilities for environmental education and threats to the many of the most important areas in the Biosphere Reserve, including unintentional disturbance. In a series of reports and presentations in Yeoncheon County we therefore proposed measures that could be taken at four sites along the Imjin and at this site on the Hantan river to reduce this kind of disturbance while increasing the value of the same areas for environmental education and conservation / eco-tourism. These measures included placement of screens, birdwatching hides, and in some areas, redirecting of hiking trails and re-profiling, to create appropriate spaces for education and tourism. The key site on the Hantan for this is “spoonbills” – so named because during our first survey there we saw Eurasian Spoonbills (at the time, the first record of this species in Yeoncheon). We therefore proposed back in 2021 and again in 2022 that this “Spoonbills project” site could be developed into an environmental education hub – through construction of a small education centre; trails; screens; dipping ponds etc. Enhancement and restoration could perhaps then enable the site to be used by Scaly-sided Merganser; and to increase the breeding population of Nationally Vulnerable Long-billed Plover.