Birds make diplomatic moves

Ornithology is very rarely linked to international geo-politics, but conservation of the Red Crowned Cranes and Black-faced Spoonbills in the Korean peninsula, as well as the water-birds of the East Asian-Australian Flyway and the glorious avifauna of Colombia, have highlighted how birds are establishing a niche in international and security relations.

While ‘environmental peace-building’ as a concept that uses the environment and biodiversity as a ‘bridge’ for peace-making and post-conflict rebuilding invites good intentions, actual examples are much less frequent as the grim reality of logistics and diplomacy crash in.

However, efforts to protect the rare cranes and spoonbills in the Korean peninsula, along with the water-birds of the East Asian-Australian Flyway, all provide a refreshing alternative perspective to the posturing and tub-thumping of North Korean leader, Jong-un Kim, and Donald Trump: the process also highlights the culturally interesting academic and political activity of Dr Chong Jong-ryol in Tokyo.

Living in both Korean states where they are strictly protected, the iconic and majestic Red Crowned Crane is an auspicious symbol of good luck, happiness, and long life for all Koreans.

Last March, The Convention on Wetlands, better known as the RAMSAR Convention, conducted a seminar at Kumgangsan (Mt. Kumgang) in North Korea with 25 experts drawn from environmental institutions in North Korea and other countries to prepare an inventory of wetlands in North Korea, with significant support from the German-based Hanns Seidel Foundation (please see link 1 below).

While the environmental effects of the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s – described by journalist Richard Lloyd-Parry as ‘a catastrophe comparable to those in Rwanda or Cambodia’ *- stimulated rampant deforestation and soil erosion, flooding and landslides, one side- effect less remarked upon was the disappearance of animal and bird life, partly due to hunting but also because of rapid environmental degradation.

Conversely, during that period, Colombia’s brutal civil war allowed its bird-life to flourish via the ‘refuge effect’, with human activity, especially farming and rampant logging, reduced. However, following the recent peace treaty signed between FARC and the government, tourism is gradually developing, with bird tourism leading the way: Colombia has over 1,900 species of birds, more than any other country, with a northern birding trail recently established as a joint project between Colombian NGO’s and the Audubon Society, the biggest bird-conservation charity in the United States.

‘Not all that long ago the FARC roamed the Sierra Nevada. Could some of its former fighters, now gathered in temporary camps, find new, peaceful livelihoods as birding guides or in conservation’, asks The Economist (please see link 2 below).

Meanwhile, the initiative to protect the cranes and establish links with North Korea has been driven by the energetic Dr Chong Jong-ryol, a professor in the Korea University in Tokyo: this institution is part of a curious anomaly in Japan that allows locally-based ethnic Koreans to maintain close cultural and educational links with North Korea through several institutions in Japan including Chongryon, with its network of banks, schools and the university employing Dr Chong Jong-ryol, allowing him to combine his two passions – North Korea and bird-life.

(1) http://www.ramsar.org/search?search_api_views_fulltext=north+korea

(2) https://www.economist.com/news/americas/21724845-bird-watching-farcland-colombias-future-involves-fewer-terrorists-and-more-ecotourists

* ‘Advantage Pyongyan’; Richard Lloyd-Parry, London Review of Books, 9 May 2013, review of The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha, Bodley Head.

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