South Korea: Traditional Rural Landscape “Maeul”
SUBMITTED ORGANISATION :
United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)
DATE OF SUBMISSION :
Republic of Korea
This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview the traditional “maeul” agricultural landscape of the Korean Peninsula.
Agriculture, secondary forest, abandonment
Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.
The summary sheet for this case study is available here.
Natural and Social Background
[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]
While the northern part of South Korea, which extends from north to south, has a cold climate with little rain, the southern part, situated in the temperate zone, is warm and has a high rainfall regime affected by the ocean. The country has two thirds of its land covered with forests. The characteristic forest vegetation of South Korea consists of Pinus densiflora, Quercus spp, and Aceraceae, and most of the forests close to settlements and agricultural land are dominated by Pinus densiflora . Since the entire country was devastated by the Korean War, which began in 1950, there are many secondary forests, which are 30 to 40 years old. Agricultural land accounts for about 18% of the national land, distributed mainly in the southwestern part of the country, and 60% of it is accounted for by paddy fields (Republic of Korea, 2009).
After the end of the Korean War, South Korea began to achieve rapid economic growth in the 1960s. The government formulated the first and second fiveyear economic development plans, which covered the period from 1962 to 1972, but since these plans focused on industrialization, physiocratic agricultural policies were abandoned one after another with spending on the agricultural sector remaining at only around 20% of total fiscal investments (Han, 1988). As a result, the proportion represented by the agricultural sector in the total working population, which stood at 60.6% in 1963, fell to 49.5% in 1970, and the percentage of the gross national product accounted for by agricultural production decreased from 39.4% to 25.2% during the same period. The ratio of the income of farmers to the income of workers in urban areas (non-farmer income) declined from 80.6% in 1966 to 67.1% in 1970, generating a regional imbalance in income (Han, 1988). In order to solve rural problems such as the regional imbalance in income that resulted from the advancement of industrialization and the influx of people into the cities and to achieve the balanced development of regional communities and the lives of their residents, the Saemaeul movement was established as part of the priority measures taken to develop agricultural and fishing villages under the third economic development plan, which began in 1972 (Han, 1988).
After the declaration of democratization in 1987, the roles of local governments underwent major changes as local autonomy was restored. Up to that time, the central government had led regional development, but it shifted its policy from positioning local governments as organs that executed the central government’s projects to allowing them to independently develop and implement administrative plans designed to revitalize rural areas. Since this shift, projects aimed at encouraging local residents to take the initiative in promoting and enlivening regional economies have replaced the previous rural policies that focused on infrastructure development (Son, 2008).
Characteristics of Agricultural Landscape “Maeul”
Rural Landscapes and Feng Shui
Photo 1. Cultivated land and secondary forests (Photo: Japan Wildlife Research Center)
Changes in the Rural Landscape
Located in South Chŏlla Province in southern South Korea, Teokseong-ri is an ordinary settlement that has paddy fields and secondary forests, two characteristics of rural areas in the country. According to the Statistical Year Book, the number of farming households in Teokseong-ri started to decline sharply in the 1980s, and at the same time, the area of paddy fields decreased. But rice production has continued to grow compared to the 1980s though it fluctuated from time to time. This is because the agricultural efficiency of the settlement improved due to mechanization and the introduction of chemical fertilizers (Kim et al., 2006).
Secondary forests have been used to provide timber, fuel for ondols (traditional underfloor residential heating systems in South Korea), firewood and charcoal, fertilizer, and for other purposes, as well as for the gathering of edible wild plants and mushrooms (Youn, 2009). Human interventions such as cutting off branches and collecting fallen branches and leaves to allow sufficient light to penetrate into the forests, thus promoting the growth of seeds, have contributed to the maintenance of these forest ecosystems (Kim et al., 2006). In the rapid economic growth in the 1960s, however, firewood was replaced by fossil fuels (Youn, 2009), and use of chemical fertilizers were increased, thus decreasing the use of secondary forests. The forest vegetation of Teokseong-ri is mainly composed of Pinus densiflora , Q. mongolica, and a mixed of Pinus densiflora and Quercus spp. Some reports claim that without human intervention, Pinus densiflora forests change into a mixed type of Pinus densiflora and Quercus spp(Kim et al., 2006). At Teokseong-ri, too, the percentage of Pinus densiflora to the total area of forests fell from 47.9% to 30.6% while that of Q. mongolica and other oaks rose. The proportion of lots in which Pinus densiflora were dominant also fell, from 15.3% to 6.7%, while on the other hand, that of lots dominated by Q. mongolica and other oaks rose. As described above, the forest ecosystem in the villages has undergone changes (Kim et al., 2006).
Challenges and Responses
Due to the rise in demand for labor in the industrial sector during the period of economic growth that began in the 1960s, people moved from rural villages to urban areas, substantially reducing the agricultural population. In the 1990s, the market for agricultural products was increasingly opened to the rest of the world, and imports of low-priced agricultural products increased. Partly because of this, the rural economy shrank as rural communities lost their vitality. Even today, agricultural land in South Korea is continuing to decline mainly for such reasons as the conversion of agricultural land due to urbanization and industrialization and an increase in the area of cultivated land that is abandoned due to the ageing of the population caused by the drift of young people and those in their prime of life to the cities. The area of agricultural land declined from 2,298,000 ha in 1970 to 1,715,000 ha in 2010 (You and Iizawa, 2005; Statistics Korea, 2011). The “Sae-maeul” movement, which meant “creating new villages” in the spirit of self-help and cooperation, started on a nationwide scale in the 1970s. This was a movement to modernize farming villages and aimed to improve their economic, social, and cultural status using a maeul as the unit of the movement, thus raising the level of welfare of all rural areas in the country. In addition, a wide range of projects such as improving the living environment, developing the production infrastructure, and increasing agricultural incomes were carried out, and as a result, the income of farmers grew and their living standards improved. In these rural development projects, however, the characteristics of individual agricultural villages and their traditional customs were not taken into consideration as a result of the uniform government-led form of development, and many of the ecological functions of agricultural villages that maintained the natural environment as well as their function of handing down traditional culture to posterity were lost (Cho and Yamaji, 2005). As described above, traditional rural landscapes in South Korea are being lost due to industrialization, urbanization, government-led development, and other factors.
Since 2000, various related ministries have implemented rural area revitalization projects with villages as their units. The “Rural Traditional Theme Maeul” project, which was launched by the Rural Development Administration in 2002, aims to identify outstanding natural landscapes and traditional cultures unique to agricultural villages as well as the knowledge required to maintain these, and then to enliven the lives of farmers and promote urban-rural exchanges through experience, learning, stays with farmers, direct sales of agricultural products, and other initiatives with traditional rural culture as their theme. By 2009, 440 villages nationwide had been registered with the Rural Development Administration. This project is carried out through village meetings based on consultations and agreements made by the residents with the administrative support of provinces and municipalities and with the cooperation of experts (Kim and Ohashi, 2005; Kim and Mitsuhashi, 2009). In 2005, the Ministry of the Environment launched “Ecologically Excellent Village and Ecologically Well-Restored Village” project. This project certifies Ecologically Excellent Villages or Excellent Well- Restored Villages, and certified villages receive a budget from the project’s fund for three years. This system aims to educate local residents in the importance of protection of the natural environment and resource management and revitalize regional economies as agricultural tourism villages (JWRC, 2009). There are still issues to be addressed, however, as shown by the example of Gacheon Darangyi Village, which is located at the southernmost tip of South Kyŏngsang Province’s Namhae County. The landscape consisting of mountains, terraced rice fields, private houses, terraced rice fields, and the sea arranged in this order was recognized as a rural landscape and traditional cultural resource. Since the landscape was designated as a “Rural Traditional Theme Maeul” site in 2002, the number of tourists visiting the village has increased, and the villagers as tourist home operators have economically benefited from the tourism boom, but the truth is that this has not yet contributed to a rise in income for the farmers (Kim and Mitsuhashi, 2009).
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