Everyone talks about cranes. However, it does not necessarily mean that they share the same dream. Crane conservation could mean different things to different people. For radical conservationists, no crane should be harmed from the activities of humans or otherwise. For economically concerned residents, cranes are precious resources for tourism to revitalise run-down local economy. Different dreams compete and sometimes clash. In 2012, crane-concerned local groups quarrelled over the issue of hosting the ice fishing festival at Togyo Reservoir, where migratory birds including cranes come to roost. A few years later, they were split over the construction of a crane observatory in Hantan River. Recently, there has been a talk of the possibility of ‘making cranes as resident birds’. Several advocates argue that the seasonality of the cranes, only available in winter, limits crane tourism to winter activities. If cranes can be domesticated through artificial incubation, as they argue, the potential of crane tourism can be fully exploited all year around. This ‘ambitious’ proposal is viewed “absolutely unacceptable” by many residents. For them, what should be prioritise is a good management of already existing habitats, rather than domesticating wild birds, so that the cranes can come naturally. Shared vulnerability
The relationship between farmers and cranes in Cheorwon has dramatically changed over the past 20 years. Why? What related farmers to cranes? First of all, it could be the increased value of the cranes. For hundreds of years, cranes neither harmed the crops nor did good for the farmers. Things now changed. With the rise of ecotourism in Korea since the late 2000s, cranes have become invaluable source of Cheorwon’s tourism. They have also become the symbol of Cheorwon, and employed for place-based marketing, which provides added-value to locally-produced agricultural products. The local brand of Cheorwon is ‘Duru-Well’
, after ‘Durumi
[cranes in Korean]’ and ‘well-being’. Furthermore, farmers’ perceptions of the cranes substantially changed. With the rapid increase in crane population, combined with the enhanced cultural and ecological interests in the cranes in the broader Korean society, farmers came to encounter the cranes more frequently in their farmlands in the CCZ. They started to notice the sheer size of the birds–as big as an adult human–graceful manouvers, family-oriented lifestyles, and the admirable journey back and forth between Korea and Siberia. Through their embodied and affective encounters with cranes, farmers seem to have developed a sort of ‘attachment’ to the birds that come to their farmlands every year. Farmers do talk about the economic value of the cranes when asked why. At the same time, they look after the cranes because they are beautiful, sometimes pitiful, and always living creatures. Then there is something more.
Perhaps it is related to the fact that the lives of cranes and farmers, both of which rely on rice, are in peril. Nearly 30-years since the end of the Cold War, the days are now passed when the state controlled, managed, and even nurtured the people and nature. After putting up fences between the Military Demarcation Line and the Civilian Control Line, the South Korean state recruited labourers from all over the country, and meticulously manipulated their everyday lives to cultivate rice in the midst of geopolitical tensions. The sovereign control of the state inadvertently attracted cranes and protected them. The rule of the developmental and Cold War state is now over. We are living with the socio-ecological crisis of the Anthropocene. Under the rapidly changing political, economic, and ecological conditions, life of the humans and nonhumans are extremely precarious.
The CCL, which was viewed almost permanent, is now being lifted due to the improvement of inter-Korea relations as well as the local pressure for development. Since the CCL is being retreated northwards, the number of minbuk villages
in the CCZ is now decreased from over 100 to six. Rice farming, which had been feeding Koreans for a long time, is at the verge of collapse. Climate change and extreme weather events increase the uncertainty to agricultural and everyday life.
The future of rice farming is bleak. The changes in Korean diet, globalisation of agriculture, and population decrease together led to overproduction of rice, which sharply dropped its price. Even if they produce Odae
rice, one of the best and most expensive breeds in the country, farmers of Cheorwon cannot avoid imminent demise of rice farming. The government encourages rice farmers to switch to more profitable crops, such as greenhouse vegetables or smart farms. The number of greenhouses in Cheorwon has recently increased. Still, few farmers can afford the facilities for greenhouses and smart farms. Many farmers instead invest their hope in the lift of the CCL, which may allow them to pursue a more lucrative industry than rice farming. When Yangji-ri, one of the minbuk villages
in Cheorwon, was released from the CCZ in 2012, however, what replaced the rice farms were animal farms. A sharp increase of poultry farms puts Cheorwon under the risk of avian influenza, which now takes place almost every winter. It is not impossible that the virus spreads from domesticated birds over to the wild ones, including cranes. As much as rice farmers, the future of the cranes is also pretty grim. Rice fields in the CCZ have been gradually encroached. Should the rice fields be removed, cranes will lose their feeding grounds. Yangji-ri used to be called ‘the village of migratory birds’ because of plenty of cranes. Few cranes now come to Yangji-ri. The paddy fields covered with the cranes are now filled with pig and chicken farms.
Kim Kwang-Kyu (pseudonym), a member of Cheorwon Farmer’s Association, said, “farmers and cranes have become alike”. Once the CCL is lifted, the cranes will lose their habitats, so will the farmers. Under the shared ecological and social crisis associated with rice farming, the lives of farmers are as vulnerable as those of cranes. Their lives are entangled. Then, this could mean that if cranes live, farmers can live, too. Kim Kwang-Kyu was one of the farmers who led the tractor protest back in 2000. He now floods his rice fields after harvest to create roosting places. He also participates in feeding and other conservation activities. Cheorwon Farmer’s Association joined the local Crane Association since 2016 because, as Kim said, “protecting cranes is to protect farmers”. If cranes live, farmers can live. If farmers live, cranes can live as well.
These farmers try to find the grounds to keep rice farming from the cranes’ use of the rice fields. Rice fields nurtures the lives of humans but the cranes too. Perhaps more than that. In the paddy fields, not just the cranes but water snails, small fish, and beetles also live. Farmers’ pro-crane activities, such as keeping rice straws within the paddies, and flooding the paddies after harvest, creates the space for the large and small creatures can make a life.
For a long time, rice fields of Cheorwon served as ‘rice factories’ where agricultural machines and chemicals are actively deployed to produce more rice. The arrival of the cranes, and farmer’s hospitality toward the birds suggest that rice fields can be transformed from ‘the space of production’ to ‘the space of life’ where the lives of humans and nonhumans are nurtured. In this regard, rice fields can support biodiversity. The conservation value of rice fields could offer one of the reasons to maintain rice farming. By attending to, and responding to, the cranes in their paddy fields, farmers of Cheorwon try to create the futures not just for the farmers, but cranes, and other aquatic creatures as well.
Amid the existential threat of the Anthropocene, these multispecies community seem to experiment “collaborative survival”
I would like to end this essay with the story how farmers managed to attune their rice seedling season to migratory birds. Cranes leave in late March at the latest, but greater white-fronted geese tend to stay until early April. In the mid-2000s these geese gave farmers headache as they started to pluck out and ate the seedlings from freshly planted rice paddies.