Biocultural diversity and traditional ecological knowledge in island regions of Southwestern Korea

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    In 2009, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the unique outstanding ecosystem biodiversity and distinct ecocultural values of the Shinan Dadohae Biosphere Reserve in the island region.The Dadohae area, which has been sustainably conserved for scores of years, boasts not only a unique ecosystem, but also has residents with a wide range of traditional ecological knowledge. In terms of understanding the soundness of the ecosystem network known as the landscape system, the recent expansion of environmental development has served to heighten the degree of consideration given not only to biodiversity, which has long been used as an indicator to assess ecosystem soundness, but also to assess cultural diversity. Man has used the surrounding landscape and living organisms as his life resources since the beginning. Moreover, whenever necessary, man has developed new species through cultivation. Biodiversity became a foundation that facilitated establishing cultural diversity such as food and housing.Such ecological knowledge has been conveyed not only to adjacent regions, but also at the international level. The recent rapid changes in the Dadohae area island ecosystem caused by the transformation of fishing grounds by such factors as climate change, excess human activities, and marine pollution, is an epoch event in environmental history that shows that the balance between man and nature has become skewed. Furthermore, this issue has moved beyond the biodiversity and landscape diversity level to become an issue that should be addressed at the cultural diversity level. To this end,the time has come to pay close attention to this issue.


    biocultural diversity , biosphere reserve , ecological culture , island ecology , sustainability , traditional ecological knowledge


    While industrial development helped widen the scope of man’s activities, the population increase has served to destroy habitats in which organisms long lived. The recent publication of various studies showing that the rapid decline in biodiversity could someday threaten the survival of the human race has led to discussions on the relationship between the sustainable development of biodiversity and the future of mankind. Biodiversity is an ecological indicator that is useful to predict the soundness and stability of an ecosystem (Ro and Hong 2007). Biodiversity is a quantitative assessment of the kinds and numbers of organisms that inhabit a simple space (Choe 2010). However, studies showing that organisms share various habitats has resulted in expanding the notion of biodiversity to include not only habitat diversity but also the landscape diversity associated with organisms, which require larger spaces for activities (Morimoto 2007), or what can be referred to as spatial diversity (Turner 1989,

    Delcourt and Delcourt 1992, Hong and Kim 2011, Wu 2011).

    Culture is an ecological process created by man to adjust to natural ecosystems. History has taught us that a close relationship exists between survival of the human race and the use of natural resources (Netting 1977). It is evident that many of the tangible and intangible resources forming the backbone of man’s lifestyle, such as language, etiquette, food, shelter, agricultural and fishing methods, tools for daily life, clothing, and villages, have traditionally been closely related to surrounding natural resources (Berkes et al. 2000, Huntington 2000, Folke 2004). For example, traditional Korean villages can be regarded as “biocultural gardens” created by combining the physical geographic environment, which includes naturally formed mountains, rivers, seas, islands, natural ecosystems, and organisms, as well as the methods employed by the people who settled in these areas to adjust to their environment. While these biocultural gardens were at the center of human life for centuries, industrialization, urbanization, and westernization have rapidly eroded this traditional and indigenous cultural system and further destroyed and transformed cultural prototypes.

    These rapid changes have lead to spatial and temporal disconnection and the disappearance of biocultural diversity prototypes, which can be equated to the gene pool of an organism. The impetus to combine biodiversity and cultural diversity into what we can be referred to as bio138cultural diversity has its roots in the recent concerns surrounding the sustainability of the Earth and the future of mankind (Fig. 1). The diversity of organisms and cultures, which are increasingly being dispersed, can be compared to a time capsule that contains the wisdom needed to ensure the survival of man in a future marked by a shortage of resources such as food, energy, and water.

    The unique methods employed by various organisms to adjust to their environments have been referred to as “ecoculture” (Cho 2010, Hong 2011). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) used the term bioculture to conceptualize mankind’s ability to adjust to various environments from an anthropological standpoint (Persic and Martin 2008). However, scholars have adopted a more inclusive interpretation and application of this term. Additionally, the manner in which biodiversity, cultural diversity, and traditional knowledge interact with one another within complex ecosystems has been defined as biocultural diversity (Huntington 2000, Hunn 2001, Maffi 2010).


    Ecologists have implored business people and politicians living in advanced countries to change their perception of climate change and reckless development. They have introduced many examples to show how mankind is dependent on organisms and ecosystems, how culture is connected to biodiversity; and how culture has been created (Korea National Commission for UNESCO 2010, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010). The United Nations designated the year 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity and the International Year of Rapprochement of Cultures. The importance of this designation at a time in which the Earth’s ecosystems are being destroyed by climate change, reckless development, the destruction of prototype ecosystems environmental pollution, and the value of biocultural diversity, which has been on the decline, cannot be overestimated. Various programs have been carried out to celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity and International Year of Rapprochement of Cultures. To this end, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was held in Montreal, Canada from June 8-10, 2010. The CBD is an international treaty established in 1993 among the United Nations Environment Program members. The Convention had three main goals: conservation of biodiversity; sustainable use of its components; and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from genetic resources. The 2010 CBD revolved around the theme of “Diversity for development-development for diversity” and was particularly significant in that it was jointly organized by the business sector and UNESCO (International Conference on Biological and Cultural Diversity 2010a). Individuals employed by environmental development enterprises, energy-related international organizations, and politicians from North America participated in the session and discussed possible ways to enhance understanding of the changes in the global environment and the biodiversity crisis by business people. The need for cooperation between business people and environmental policymakers as far as diversity, the advent of a green economy, and new growth models was emphasized. However, the most interesting development from the Convention was the in-depth discussions held between UNESCO, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and politicians as part of panels entitled “Energy, sustainable development, and diversity” and “Biological and cultural diversity for sustainable development.” As such, interest in biodiversity and cultural diversity, which constitute fundamental indicators upon which any discussion of the sustainability of the global environment and local community must be based, has been on the rise (International Conference on Biological and Cultural Diversity 2010b).

    The debate over the formation of landscapes, which is orga criterion to evaluate biodiversity, has focused on identifying the ecological significance of the various types, characteristics, and functions of landscapes (Turner 1989, Forman 1995). In terms of the methods used to measure the value of landscapes, much attention has been paid to indigenous knowledge such as spiritual values (Chen and Wu 2009). These values include the various indigenous resources possessed by minority groups such as the indigenous people of South America, native Indians of Canada, and adherents of Fengshui in Asia (Berkes et al. 2000, Stepp et al. 2002, Folke 2004, Lee 2004). In this regard, the languages and dialects of such minority groups have rapidly declined in the face of westernization (Hunn 2001, International Conference on Biological and Cultural Diversity 2010b). The indigenous knowledge associated with the use of natural resources is intricately related to the biodiversity crisis caused by reckless energy development and land use. One of the major points of contention has been the question of how this indigenous knowledge can best be preserved. The survival of mankind will be greatly dependent on biodiversity (Folke 2004). The ecocultural flexibility and sustainability stemming from the intricate links between biodiversity and cultural diversity (Brown et al. 2005), which has been used as a model for harmonized coexistence within ecosystems, is the basis for the continued existence of man.

    In contrast, Japan established the Satoyama concept in conjunction with forest system sustainability. Since the 1990s, the Satoyama concept has been considered not only a mechanism for managing forests but also as the prototypical or ideal landscape system for Japanese rural areas (Hirose 2010). The advent of the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 saw a concerted effort on the part of the Japanese government, academic circles, and citizens to promote the concept of Satoyama globally. Rapid industrial development in Japan since the 1960s has resulted in the widespread neglect of forests during transfer of its main energy source (or what was known as the fuel revolution in Japan) from wood to fossil fuels (Nakagoshi and Hong 2001). The long-term neglect of forests that ensued resulted in a number of indigenous organisms facing extinction threats and landscapes were damaged by reckless development, all of which resulted in the disappearance of the prototypical landscape of traditional villages (Hirose 2010). The Japanese Ministry of the Environment responded to these problems by identifying the concept of Satoyama as the prototype, selecting ecological monitoring sites, and conducting various studies carried out by specialists as well as civic groups. Using the Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) as an opportunity (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2011), the Ministry of the Environment of Japan has since promoted the concept of Satoyama, which it defines as an “ecological space within which nature and man coexist in a balanced manner” across the world. Additionally, to prepare for the spread of Satoyama across the globe, Japan has sought to upgrade the concept of Satoyama to the level of UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve or higher. The current concept of Satoyama can be regarded as a furthering of the original notion of Satoyama that prevailed in Japan prior to the 1960s, at which time it referred to the traditional methods of extracting charcoal and lumber from the village forests around which efforts to manage forests revolved. Today, the concept of Satoyama, as understood by Japanese ecologists, revolves around the ecological management of forests as a whole.


    Man, who is dependent on ecosystem complexity, has adopted various adjustment strategies. Humans developed the biological resources required for survival, including food, clothing, and shelter. What started out as simple survival methods over time developed into indigenous knowledge Unlike inland areas, islands, whose landscape matrix is the sea, are characterized by solitariness and communicativeness (Hong 2010). The Dadohae (literally meaning “sea of many islands”) area in Korea serves not only as a bridgehead through which inland organisms are dispersed to maritime areas but also acts as a filter to restrain the environmental changes emanating from the sea to make their way inland (Hong 2011). Thus, Dadohae is the point of contact where biodiversity dispersed from the inland area meets that originating from the sea. Therefore, as related ecological information was accumulated, Dadohae became entrenched as the “island ecoculture” which, in turn, formed what is known as Dadohae culture (Ministry of Oceanic and Marine Products 2002). The existence of such an island ecosystem is closely related to conveying ecological knowledge by the residents who utilized biodiversity.

    The increase in the urban population caused by Korea’s rapid economic development has resulted in a significant transformation of Korea’s inland ecosystem over the past 30 years. Fortunately, the development of islands and remote rural areas has been delayed. Topographically, Korea is surrounded by the sea on three sides. Furthermore, the wide array of large and small islands, 3,400 in total, have helped to ensure a complex biological and cultural structure in Korea. Located in southwest Korea, the Dadohae area boasts well-developed ria coasts, broadened tidal flats, and 2,000 islands. The topographical characteristics, landscape, ecological characteristics, and biodiversity value of this area have been recognized by UNESCO, who designated the area as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2009 (Lee et al. 2010). Contrary to the denizens of the inland urban areas, the islands residents on the southwest coast of Korea remain greatly dependent on the biological resources obtained from their surrounding ecosystems (Hong et al. 2010).

    These include the various seagrasses, fish, and shellfish obtained from tidal flats, marine areas, and uninhabited islands; the sun-dried salt produced through the specific use of land in tidal flat areas; and processed foods such as salted and dried fish products. These are

    the basic industries from which income is generated in fishery areas. The indigenous biological resources used by the residents of the Dadohae Biosphere Reserve are shown in Table 1.

    Plant resources have not only been used to prepare medicines but also serve as a way to generate income (Table 2). Most plant resources consist of medicinal herbs and mountain vegetables. Although the diversity of mountain vegetables is not as great as that found in the mountainous inland provinces in the northeast, some indigenous plants that only grow in evergreen broad-leaved forests can be found. As Dadohae is a maritime area, it naturally features a wide diversity of fishes and seagrasses. While Europeans and other denizens of the Western world did not eat these seagrasses which they referred to as “seaweeds,” they have recently started to realize the taste and efficacy of such resources, which they now refer to as “sea vegetables.” Seagrasses, which have long been used in Korea, are increasingly being touted as health food or as a representative local food. However, factors such as climate change and environmental pollution have caused marked fluctuations in sea vegetable production. Meanwhile, the advent of an ageing society in island areas has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of human resources engaged in the gathering of sea vegetables. Fishing village residents possess a unique environmental adjustment method that can best be defined as fishery power (Table. 2 and 3). This kind of power, which cannot be found in agricultural areas, has helped to develop a sophisticated understanding of the prevailing spatial and temporal arrangements.

    Fishing activities are dependent on this fishery power (Table 2). The concept of “multtae” (literally tidal time), based on the ebb and flow of tidal water and the wind, are important elements of this fishery power. Although the concept of multtae is referred to by different names in different regions, the first day of the month on the lunar calendar, when the tidal effect is significant and the

    water current is fast, is known as “ilgommul” or “7 mul.” This particular time period is also known as “sari” (high tide). The difference between the ebb and flow gradually increases, moving from ilgommul or 7 mul to “yeolsemul” or “13 mul” on the 7th day of the lunar calendar month. This particular time is known as “achim jogeum” (morning neap tide). After “jogeum” (neap tide) on the 8th day, and “musu” (slight neap tide) on the 9th day, “hanmul” or “1 mul” begins on the 10th day of the month, only to become “yeoseonmul” or “6 mul” on the 15th day of the month. A new cycle of multtae starts on the 16th day of every lunar calendar month.


    The biological resources and ecological habitats that serve as ecosystems have long provided the foundation for traditional ecological knowledge (Beller et al. 1990, Berkes et al. 2000, Folke 2004). Many studies have shown that the human adjustment process rooted in biological resources and the traditional knowledge created during the adjustment process is directly connected to the biodiversity and cultural diversity that exists in a particular region (see Table 3).

    Biodiversity, which can be regarded herein as natural resources, becomes the basis that determines community cultural characteristics. Regions with greater biodiversity boast greater cultural diversity in terms of food, language, architecture, and social structures (Table 4). The detailed knowledge related to the natural environment has become entrenched in the languages used by the various human groups who have lived in close contact with their respective environments for centuries.

    One-fourth of all pharmaceuticals prescribed by doctors in the United States are currently made of materials extracted from plants grown in tropical rainforests (Stepp et al. 2002, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010). Thus, a very strong likelihood exists that useful materials can be extracted from the sub-tropical forests and maritime organisms (maritime products and seaweeds, etc.) found in the Dadohae area of Shinan-gun, Korea. For much the same reasons, the indigenous knowledge possessed by local residents can also be perceived as a valuable resource (Table 5). As Maffi and Woodley (2010) stated, a treasure trove of scientific and medical wisdom is lost whenever a native culture disappears. Man’s ability to respond to changes in the global environment, including climate change, is predicated by the development and dissemination of the indigenous knowledge possessed by the local residents who have long utilized relevant biological resources in a sustainable manner.

    The sustainability of the Dadohae area can only be ensured when the biosphere or environmental island ecosystems and culture or human social structure coexist and are in harmony. However, as has been the case with Dadohae, a lack of discussions has occurred in Korea regarding island sustainability and related indicators. In this regard, there is a need to establish a comprehensive development plan for islands and national parks, including the UNESCO Shinan Dadohae Biosphere Reserve, and to develop the Dadohae area’s outstanding biological resources and ecosystems. It is also essential that the central government, local researchers, and residents focus on promoting international use of these resources.

    An urgent need exists to improve the living environment in the Dadohae area, which has to adjust to global climate changes characterized by the rise in sea level associated with changes in ocean temperature and the alterations based on agriculture and fishing brought on by island environmental changes (Hong 2011). Thus, it is necessary to establish a low carbon-based lifestyle in the Dadohae area by introducing bioenergy, securing green space, and developing biological architecture, all of which should be in keeping with the government’s green growth policy. However the economic, social, and cultural systems found in big cities cannot and should not be used to develop the Dadohae area. Rather, a strategy that optimizes the advantages and disadvantages of the Dadohae area, such as its unique ecosystems, solitariness, limited resources, cultural distinctiveness, and locality should be adopted. The natural resources and ecoculture found along the southwest coast of Korea, a region represented by the Dadohae area, include many that are internationally competitive. Here, one could name the numerous islands, quality tidal ecosystems, and the fish, shellfish, and sun-dried salt that are produced therein. Nevertheless, no concrete efforts have been made to use these unique characteristics as a vehicle to improve the lives of local residents. It is necessary to strengthen the area’s competitiveness and bring about the degree of industrialization needed to actively use this area as a hub for ecotourism and the health industry. Important items on the agenda related to the development of Korean island ecosystems in the 21st century should include the sustainable development and use of ecological resources, which can be regarded as the core function of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, establishing the support system needed to achieve sustainable development and usage, the advent of harmony between the conveying traditional knowledge and a modern lifestyle, achieving a balance between nature and highly-advanced technology, and culture-based development (Hess 1990, UNESCO MAB 2008).

    Lastly, the organisms and culture that comprise biocultural diversity may appear to be quite different from one another (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010). However, as man’s development has been dependent on nature and the former exists in a fatalistic relationship with nature in which existence without natural resources is not possible, the term biocultural diversity, which can be defined as coexistence of nature and man, was created (Maffi 2001, Stepp et al. 2002, Cho 2010, Hong 2010). As such, it is true that humans and nature coexist, interact, and depend on one another within the ecosystem. However, there is an urgent need to understand that the connectivity between man and nature has been negatively impacted by the rapidly changing global environment, reckless development, and decreases in biodiversity at the government, academic, civic and specialist levels (Hong et al. 2010).

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  • [Fig.1.] Relationship between biological diversity and cultural diversity. Interaction of biocultural diversity at the local and global levels (Adopted from Maffi and Woodley 2010).
    Relationship between biological diversity and cultural diversity. Interaction of biocultural diversity at the local and global levels (Adopted from Maffi and Woodley 2010).
  • [Table 1.] Main biological resources found in Dadohae region
    Main biological resources found in Dadohae region
  • [Table 2.] Traditional ecological knowledge pertaining to the use of the main biological resources in coastal and island regions
    Traditional ecological knowledge pertaining to the use of the main biological resources in coastal and island regions
  • [Table 3.] Ecological knowledge pertaining to the main biological resources found on particular islands along the southwest coast of Korea
    Ecological knowledge pertaining to the main biological resources found on particular islands along the southwest coast of Korea
  • [Table 3-1.] Continued.
  • [Table 4.] Systems of biocultural diversity and its concern with evaluation (Hunn 2001)
    Systems of biocultural diversity and its concern with evaluation (Hunn 2001)
  • [Table 5.] Ecological knowledge developed in the Dadohae area and potential research themes pertaining to biocultural diversity
    Ecological knowledge developed in the Dadohae area and potential research themes pertaining to biocultural diversity