As an organic farming villager
Almost 30 years ago I started cultivating some land in a small farming village called Joan-myeon, about 35 kilometers northeast of Seoul. Some 13 years ago, I settled there. While I don’t claim to be a farmer, I spend an average of three hours per week seeding, watering and weeding. Perhaps I could classify myself an amateur farmer.
Over the decades I have witnessed many changes to my village and its surroundings. The area’s name, alternatively ``Yangsuri” or ``Dumulmeori,” means `where the two rivers meet. On the shores of the vast Paldang Lake, a favorite destination is the famous Semiwon lotus garden.
At this area a truly historic event is taking place through Oct. 5, 2011. Some 1,100 organic farmers and sustainable farming experts from around the world are participating in the 17th Organic World Congress. In Asia for the first time, the event features academic presentations, market festivals, a food show, exhibitions and many other events.
According to the host organization, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement, or IFOAM, organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved."
As it relates to organic farming, IFOAM espouses four principles: the principles of health, ecology, fairness and care. The spirit of these principles is clear and rational. It would seem that everyone should embrace them.
And yet, modern farming has rapidly moved away from traditional methods to an industrial scale that prioritizes quantity and speed. The focus of even organic farming these days is on the product, rather than the process. The production of healthy food is emphasized over reclaiming a long-term, sustainable system of agriculture.
When I lived in Germany in the 1980s, I enjoyed visiting organic farms near Bonn, the former West German capital. I liked to watch the farmers as they created environmentally-friendly manure and compost or controlled pests with biological substances instead of harmful pesticides. I also loved to buy apples, pears and vegetables that would be considered too ugly for sale in Korea.
Looking back, I find the traditional way of farming in Korea was also very organic. They did not use fertilizers or insecticides. Natural farming was the standard means of agriculture across all of Asia. As far as I can tell, organic farming in my community means using fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Hosting the Organic Farming Congress has brought its own share of perks. Local officials mended roads, erected fancy bus stops and removed most of the greenhouses that used to line the river.
Despite these welcome changes, no big movement comes simple or easy. In recent years, I have heard many arguments and conflicts among local farmers, government officials and members of environmental and agricultural NGOs. Our area became an epicenter of protests by civic and religious organizations against the massive four-river renovation project. As a national symbol of opposition against the project, ecological and farming issues became political issues. At some point, there were even rumors that the Organic World Congress would be cancelled.
As a practical-minded villager, I am in favor of the four-river project. Why? In the process of surveying the areas, significant stretches of riverbank and illegally-occupied areas were recovered. What was once used as a personal garden was returned to the villagers as a lovely natural bog surrounded by silver grass. I appreciate having new access to riverbanks. I also enjoy seeing the bicycles plying the riverside track instead of the narrow village alleyways.
Regarding the organizers of the Organic Farming Congress, I am disappointed at their lack of communication with local people. Although this event is about sustainable agriculture, it seems that few if any local people were invited to participate. I received no information or invitation to attend any events. No one asked me to host a few foreign participants, although I would be happy to do so.
As a result, I better understand the feelings of alienation and exclusion that local people frequently described in these types of situations. Was it my fault to expect to be informed of or invited to without actively contacting the organizers? I don’t think so. I suspect that even if I did, they might suspect I was only trying to drum up some business.
I agree with the environmentalists who think that eco-friendly agriculture is good for my village and for Korea, as a whole. On the other hand, I also support the four-river project. In both instances, better communication with the local residents could have prevented unnecessary conflict and achieved mutually-desired goals.
Like the currents that pass by Semiwon, it’s all water under the bridge now. I wish the organizers of the Organic Farming Congress great success. I hope that Korean farmers (and amateur farmers, like me) will gain new insights into sustainable agriculture.
The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). She can be reached at email@example.com.