Seonheul village on Jeju Island has undergone several transformations throughout its history, but in the last ten years, community-based tourism has become a mainstay — bolstering conservation, the local economy, and the social fabric of the village. Dr. Mihee Kang and Jeryang Ko explain how stakeholders came together to establish a social cooperative that changed the future of the village.
Power of Working Together: A Lesson from a Ramsar Wetland Village in Jeju, South Korea
Many government-supported rural development schemes focus too heavily on infrastructure; many villagers don’t know how to run a business. By contrast, the Korean village of Seonheul on Jeju Island has established a local business that would ensure economic sustainability even without government financial support. The goals were for all stakeholders to participate, with the village as the leader, and for profits to be distributed widely. This ‘social cooperative’ was just one feature of the area’s communal conservation and ecotourism development, which has been underway for years.Seonheul lies inland on Jeju Island. This southernmost and largest island of South Korea has a population of around 670,000. It was formed by the eruption of an underwater volcano about 2 million years ago. Today, there are nine inhabited islands and 55 uninhabited islands in its administrative boundary. Jeju Island has been designated as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, a Biosphere Reserve, and a Geopark.
Seonheul is an agricultural village with about 900 residents in 2021. It is one of 29 Korean ecotourism destinations designated by the Korean Ministry of Environment that are designed to protect nature and support community-based ecotourism development.
A key site in the village is a gotjawal (rocky lava) volcanic forest called Dongbaekdongsan (or Camelia Hill), which is included in the biosphere reserve and the geopark. It is surrounded by an evergreen forest with a relatively warm climate at an elevation of less than 100m. Dongbaekdongsan was formed by lava as thin as tomato juice, which formed a plate at the base of the forest, eventually creating the wetlands of today.
Around 0.59 km2 of those wetlands, centered on ‘Meunmulkak’, have been designated a Ramsar Wetland. Dongbaekdongsan is rich in biodiversity; 13 of its more than 370 types of plants and 900 animal species are protected. There are more than 100 freshwater springs that are used for sacred prayers, drinking water for residents and animals, as well as for bathing water.
Forming a Committee with Stakeholders
Residents’ participation in the conservation and ecotourism development of Dongbaekdongsan (Camelia Hill) can be divided into three stages: (i) before 1981, (ii) after 1981, and (iii) after 2010. Until the early 1980s, Dongbaekdongsan was used as a village communal ranch and for water. There was a village forestry club that oversaw decision-making and enforced the rules of how the forest was used. This changed in 1981, when it was designated a Jeju Special-Governing Province Monument No.10 by the national government, due to its unique location as a natural forest in the center of the mountainous regions of Jeju. By this time, residents no longer depended on its resources. Water, wood, and charcoal were not the main necessities since sources for fuel changed, and a public water supply was introduced to the village, ultimately changing the village lifestyle.
In 2010, the Ministry of the Environment designated Dongbaekdongsan as a Protected Wetland and implemented capacity-building programs for the residents to protect its resources. From this point on, ecotourism and eco-education became the focus of the residents as a vehicle for conservation and a wise use of the resources through participation.
The following year, in 2011, the Village Council (VC) formed Dongbaekdongsan Conservation and Management Council (DCMC) , inviting stakeholders surrounding Dongbaekdongsan to join, such as provincial and municipal governments, environmental NGOs, experts, research institutes, and other related organizations. The Village Council leader is also the president of the DCMC. The DCMC meets every quarter to bring together outside stakeholders to discuss issues related to conservation and ecotourism development of the Dongbaekdongsan. However, the final decision is made at the village general assembly.
Learning Together, Sharing Responsibility, and Making Decision s Collectively
The VC internally holds resident meetings three times a year for residents to share information, prevent alienation, discuss responsibilities, and share benefits together. Once a year, a roundtable meeting is held for all residents to discuss the vision for the village.
The first roundtable meeting was held in February 2014. At least 100 -130 residents from all age groups attended the roundtable meeting. Each year, one table is saved for village children of all ages that allows them to proudly participate in village discussions and in the decision-making process as members of the village.
Resident-led Conservation, Restoration, Monitoring, and Documentation
The VC also organizes capacity building training sessions for its residents regularly so the residents can take leadership in conservation and tourism development. Ecological monitoring by a group of residents is an important part of the ongoing training programs.
The ecological monitoring group consists of about 10 people including 5-6 residents, one expert, and 2-3 people from ecotourism associations and/or advisory groups. Since 2011, the group surveys ecological resources and monitors ecological changes monthly in Dongbaekdongsan. Based on the results of their activities, restoration of endangered species is continued by the village and/or the environmental agencies. The village also has a monitoring program engaging local students led by the village eco-teachers combined with the advice of a local professional organization. Currently, a few books about camellia trees, local grasses, and ferns of Dongbaekdongsan have been published by the VC in collaboration with resident monitoring groups and experts, and a book about mushrooms will be published soon.
Building a Village Enterprise — the ‘Social Cooperative Seonheulgot’
Rather than relying on government subsidies, the village worked to establish a business that would ensure economic sustainability even after government subsidies stop. The business structure was to ensure that all stakeholders would participate, with the village as the primary leader, and that the profit from the business would be distributed widely.
After discussion and deliberation for many years on the type of business required, a collective decision was made during a roundtable discussion with 130 residents in attendance: To create the ‘Social Cooperative Seonheulgot.’ Its objective was ‘conservation of Dongbaekdongsan and residents’ happiness’.
Resident concerns and satisfaction are monitored regularly. Currently, Seonheulgot manages the Dongbaekdongsan Wetland Center and operates ecotours, local product sales, interpretation service, and community eco-education programs. Their two ecotour products are certified as low-carbon tours by the Korean Ministry of Environment.
All Age Groups Participate in Ecotourism Development
Older residents engage in literary and artistic activities, drawing, writing, and producing books that are sold as souvenirs.
Residents in their 40s and 50s typically take the role of planning and leading ecotourism programs, while there are women’s groups in their 50s to 70s that conduct food-experience programs to provide tourists with local specialties. There are even teenagers who serve as eco-guides, and men in their 70s serving as “uncle” eco-guides. In addition, the annual village festival is a plastic-free event.
Residents Teach Nature and Culture at Schools, Drawing Outside Students
The Seonheul elementary school invites village eco-guides to its regular environmental classes. These trained village eco-teachers deliver classes for the students every week, teaching not only ecology but also traditional knowledge and cultural values of the village. In 2014, this elementary school nearly closed with only 20 students enrolled, but the popularity of this program has led students to transfer in from other provinces. Today, the school has over 110 students, 90% of which are transfer students.
The Power of a Cooperative Network and Intermediate Supporting Organization
Seonheul is regarded as a good case of community-based ecotourism development in Korea because the VC engaged with different stakeholders and it took a democratic process in the decision making. Support from Jeju Ecotourism Association and Jeju Ecotourism Center provided advice from the start of the village ecotourism development.
In Korea, there have been hundreds of rural village tourism development projects supported by the relevant government agencies. Many are government-led projects that focus too heavily on infrastructure development, and/or the villagers lacked the capacity to establish a sustainable tourism business structure. Only handful of cases can be considered successful community-based tourism examples. But when the roles of each stakeholder are clear and when the local community takes primary responsibility, then sustainable community-based tourism is possible.
This is not to say that the Seonheul Village case is perfect. Conflicts between residents and/or stakeholders still exist, there is a risk of overtourism, and the community has experienced difficulties in operating a business that is economically sustainable. However, the future is certainly positive. This village has learned over the past 10 years to communicate and solve its problems together.