Should it answer to conference sponsors Samsung and the Korean government, or to its historical mission to protect the environment and social justice?
The world’s largest and oldest conservation organization, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is holding its giant quadrennial convention on Jeju Island, South Korea. But what conference planners weren’t expecting was massive protests from the local community, joined by international activists, against a gigantic navy base being built seven kilometers away. As a result of this controversy, an emergency motion to stop base construction has been drafted, which will be voted on tomorrow, Saturday, September 15.
The South Korean government, which is subordinate on military matters to the U.S., under the US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, is building the enormous base on the coast at Gangjeong, a traditional farming and fishing community. If the project is allowed to continue, it will be large enough to hold 20 warships, including Aegis destroyers, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and 8,000 troops. South Korea is already one of the most militarized places in the world. But this new base is part of the Pentagon’s recently announced plan to move 60 per cent of its military resources from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region – the “Pacific pivot.” The idea is to circle China with Aegis missiles. Islanders fear the base would destabilize the region, lead to a new Cold War, and turn their home into a first-strike target.
A recently leaked communiqué, obtained by a Korea National Assembly member, reveals the close connection between the Pentagon and base construction. The communiqué, sent by the commander of the US Naval Forces, Korea, to the South Korean defense minister, directly requests that the base plan be designed to accommodate an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
The base would also destroy local livelihoods, biodiverse habitats in land and sea, contaminate one of the cleanest and most abundant freshwater sources in the world, kill the planet’s largest temperate soft-coral habitat (15 acres), contaminate the rich volcanic soil in nearby farms as well as nearby UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Korea’s last 100 dolphins which frequent Gangjeong would also suffer. The villagers have been protesting for over five years, facing arrest, imprisonment without habeus corpus, and daily police brutality.
On May 30, 2012, three UN Special Rapporteurs sent a joint allegation letter to the South Korean government regarding numerous “acts of harassment, intimidation and ill-treatment of peaceful protestors in Gangjeong village,” requesting a response within 60 days. That was three and a half months ago, but the Korean government has yet to respond.
An American scientist, Dr. Imok Cha, was deported upon arrival at the airport on the first day of the conference, where she was expected to give presentations on an independent environmental assessment that exposed the flaws in the Korean government’s Environmental Impact Assessment for the base construction.
Leadership at the IUCN conference have refused to give the Gangjeong villagers their own exhibition booth to expose the litany Korean-government violations, offering no explanation. On the last day of his tenure as president of IUCN, Ashok Khosla denounced the campaign to save Gangjeong Village from base construction, calling the movement “colonial” because non-Koreans were involved. However, attendees know the reason that IUCN officials have done their best to silence the Gangjeong villagers: the main sponsors of their conference in Jeju are the Korean government ($20 million) and Samsung Corporation, which is also the lead contractor of base construction. Soon after Khosla issued his “colonialism” charges, a group of South Koreans representing 189 South Korean organizations, denounced Khosla, and charged him with ignoring their clearly expressed opposition to the base that had been going on for over five years.
As a result, a massive division within the formidable organization has been cleaved between its Secretariat and the 8,000 members in attendance who object to leadership’s decision to side with it sponsors. One organization, the Center for Humans and Nature, from Indiana in the U.S., has drafted an emergency resolution to stop the construction. It will be on the Assembly floor for a vote before international governments and NGOs, this Saturday (Korea time), the last day of the conference.
Many members feel the entire future and credibility of the 64-year-old conservation institution is at stake, if politics prevent the resolution from passing.