Minister Says Ramsar Convention Will Spur Green Growth
‘Environment Olympics’ to Open in Changwon Today
By Bae Ji-sook
Environment Minister Lee Maan-ee said the largest gathering of 2,000 environmentalists from 158 countries in Changwon today will be a major catalyst to spur sustainable ``Green Growth'' in Korea.
In an exclusive interview with The Korea Times ahead of the opening of the Ramsar Convention, Lee said the ``Environment Olympics'' will be a guide for Korea's future policies and help Koreans get more insight into the importance of the environment in their lives.
``For a very long time we were unable to catch up with world standards in environment preservation and a growing call for natural sustainability. The convention will help us realize the importance of the environment and provide us with a vision for the wise use of wetlands for sustainable green growth,'' he said.
Lee will be chairing the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Convention on Wetlands in the southeastern city, a hub for Korea's heavy industry in South Gyeongsang Province.
The meeting has attracted delegates and non-governmental organizations from the 158 member countries to share ideas on preserving and making the best use of the 1,760 declared wetlands across the world.
Wetlands may come across as simple marshes to many people, but they affect human life significantly. Wetlands absorb about 40 percent of the carbon emissions produced worldwide. Peatlands are especially important in slowing global warming. No one can say for sure how much damage the Earth will sustain if these wetlands disappear, Lee said.
``Since Korea is known for its growing emission of carbon, designating wetlands for preservation and showing them to the world will be the key to preventing worsening climate change,'' he said.
``This explains why this convention's main slogan is Healthy Wetland, Healthy People.''
Wetlands are also a cradle of biodiversity, providing water and primary products on which countless species of animals and plants depend for survival. They protect humans from many natural disasters such as flooding, while coastal wetlands prevent damage caused by hurricanes, cyclones and storm surges.
With the participation of more than 2,000 environmental leaders, the Changwon gathering will be an opportunity to show the world that Korea is moving forward with sophisticated environmental policies. A comprehensive recycling system will be implemented at the conference venue ― the Changwon Exhibition and Convention Center ― and a fund for a carbon neutral meeting will be established to reduce carbon emissions.
The amount of carbon emitted will be calculated at the end of the event and Korea will create a fund to plant trees to offset the emissions. All staff and participants are encouraged to use ceramic cups instead of disposable papers or paper plastic cups and the use of paper as well as other disposable goods is to be restricted.
The convention will also be the keystone to green growth, President Lee Myung-bak's main policy for the next four years. At the center of the issue will be eco-tourism, which provides people with opportunities to visit wetlands and get in touch with nature. Minister Lee stressed that it will be the role model for sustainable tourism here and will be a next growth engine for tourism.
``I wouldn't say wetlands and other places for environmental preservation should be off-limits to people. I understand that the value of the environment can only be evaluated when people appreciate it. Therefore, letting people see it and experience it will be important,'' he said.
Some environmental civic groups oppose the mass opening of the wetlands, but the minister said that their opening will not lead to their destruction.
``We are not talking about building roads and facilities for tourists around wetlands. Still, there are environmentally friendly ways to help visitors appreciate the beauty of these places,'' he said.
It will also help boost the local economy, he said. ``For example, Suncheon Bay area in South Jeolla Province saw more than 530,000 visitors last year and generated more than $20 million in business for the southwestern region. If you can make money and also promote the importance of its preservation within the boundaries of environment protection, why not do it?'' he said.
``That's green growth: not to exclude humans from the environment but still make economic development. That is the wise use of wetlands, the all-time-main catchphrase of the convention.''
The intergovernmental treaty, whose original name was the Convention of Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitats, was first signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971 to protect wetlands for water birds.
But now it has grown to recognize the fundamental ecological function of wetlands and their economic, cultural, scientific and recreational value.
The convention will be focusing on Healthy Wetland and Healthy People with the objective of adopting 33 resolutions and a possible Changwon Declaration, which will make the convention the largest one to date.
The Changwon gathering will also be an opportunity to discuss whether to designate rice paddies as wetlands. Their ecological function will be thoroughly studied as a means to discover methods for sustainable agriculture.