Impressions of Jeju and a congress of the IUCN (2012)

In September 2012 I traveled to South Korea where the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was gathering for a congress. This event takes place every four years and brings together thousands of environmentalists, conservationists and ecologists. I have had various encounters with the organization over the years – in West Africa, Central America and South-east Asia – so it was exciting to spend a few days getting to know the scale and scope of the movement under one roof so to speak.

The first stop en route to Jeju was the capital, Seoul, a massive, sprawling city with lots of hills, rivers and green spaces between the “villages” of high rise buildings. There’s a vast network of motorways and railways. I had to change from one airport to another, so a 40 minute bus ride was a good opportunity to get an idea of the landscapes. Seoul is surprisingly close to the demilitarised zone which has divided north and south since the 1950s. The flight to Jeju island was short, but also interesting as I had a window seat and it was easy to see the forests and hilly regions in the south of the country, as well as the many islands in the East China Sea. Jeju is not far from Japan; in fact Nagasaki is one of the closest cities.

At first I couldn’t figure out whether signs around the town of Jeju were in Japanese or Chinese as well as Korean and English. Are the languages at all similar? There were many tourists on the island, which is full of resorts, casinos, golf courses and assorted curios (a teddy bear museum, an african art centre, a chocolate palace, etc.). It seemed a bit tacky…

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I went for two walks on arrival, to get my bearings and find food. First I went to a fast food outlet where I ate a “kraze burger” which was very bland. Then I located a Korean restaurant and decided to try my luck. Many people seemed to speak a few words of English, but the problem was their pronunciation. I had to keep asking them to repeat. My evening meal was rice with mixed vegetables and abelone. I had no idea what abelone was, but the waitress seemed enthusiastic (“very good, very good for you…”), so I took the plunge. It turned out to be a mollusc or sea snail in small strips and was actually quite good. The rice was fantastic. I watched the other people in the restaurant in order to figure out the etiquette! I stuck to beer, but there were also various types of rice wine on the menu too.

On my last evening – having escaped from the Jeju governor’s dinner party in a wet hotel garden next to the convention centre and the sea, leaving hundreds of conservationists struggling to guzzle Korean specialities with chopsticks in the rain while holding umbrellas – I went back to my room at the luxurious Hyatt Hotel for a bath and a rest. The room overlooked a giant foyer where fish swam in a pond next to the bar. It was a relief to be alone and reflect on lessons learned as well as on some of the bizarre moments at the congress.

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The day before, after breakfast at around 8 am, I walked from the Hyatt Hotel to the enormous convention centre (about 30 minutes) and arrived a bit sweaty. After a meeting with the IUCN donor group, I went to hear a talk to about a Central American environment programme which I had been responsible for designing when I worked in Managua. There was a good crowd including some shark fin conservationists from Costa Rica and some foresters from Guatemala.

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Then I had lunch in the giant congress food court where hundreds of young Koreans wearing t-shirts with the IUCN “Nature +” slogan served a massive buffet of (mostly tasty) “Jeju style” food. Outside the food court tent was a stage with live performances. One day there were Mexican mariachi and I also saw a group of Korean singers and drummers.

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After lunch I went to a session on how to deal with illegal timber trading, with more Mexicans, some West Africans and a lively Malaysian as well as an incomprehensible young American. Then I went to the “world leaders dialogue” in the main hall, where assorted big shots including the ex-president of Bhutan and the Finnish development cooperation minister discussed green growth policies. The panel debate was moderated by a journalist from the Guardian newspaper.

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From the world leaders session many people moved on to a reception organised by one of the leading American organisations, Conservation International (a BINGO, or big international NGO). There I met a Peruvian parks specialist and the official Danish congress delegate – as well as a Canadian environmentalist who is the co-author of this remarkable work about toxic dangers: http://slowdeathbyrubberduck.com/

The day ended at an extraordinary gathering at the Hyatt Hotel. It seems that cities or countries make offers to host the IUCN congress (a bit like the Olympic games), so the governor of the island of Hawaii has decided that the next session (in 2016) must be held there. In order to attract the delegates, a musical dinner buffet party with lots of flowery chains, exotic dishes, wine and bags of gifts had been arranged. There were speeches and some overweight dancers with silly hats performed on a stage. I got a bit drunk and joked (about the German coastguard, spam, etc.) with the Canadian toxic materials author and the Danish delegate, before getting mixed up in another joking session with a guy who turned out to be the director of Frankfurt Zoo (“have you heard the one about Angela Merkel…”). At about 23.00 I was too tired to stand anymore and was very glad that I only had to find my way upstairs rather than taking a slow bus across town.

Some of the people I have talked to wonder whether an environmental movement like the IUCN ought to be planning another such massive carbon emitting event at all. One of the world leaders yesterday complained that the organisers had not arranged a meatless congress. The angry villagers from down the road, whose land has been taken away to build a military base, got into the convention centre and staged protests by lying on the floor and against the walls appearing to be dead. The world leaders said that radical changes are needed. At the Hyatt, it was business as usual and rumours circulated about how much it must have cost the state of Hawaii to arrange the dinner (at least hundreds of thousands of dollars).

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PS The state of Hawaii won the completion to host the 2016 IUCN congress, which was held in September… Unfortunately Danish financial support for the Union has been cut back to zero since 2015. We can only hope that the governments of emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere will recognize the value of a global movement to protect and manage the planet’s natural resources…

Mounted police outside the congress centre on the opening evening

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Musician at Incheon airport – farewell South Korea…

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