Considered one of the significant human impacts on Earth according to scholars of the Anthropocene, rice paddies for rice cultivation appeared at the beginning of agricultural history. In the case of Korea, a country where rice is a staple food, traces of rice cultivation have been found as far back as 3,500 years ago (An, 2009; Park, 2021, p.110 requoted). As climatologist William Ruddiman pointed out, such traces of agriculture have revealed a significant amount of evidence of human influence on the climate of Earth(Ruddiman, 2003).
However, apart from these attempts to discover the human impacts through rice cultivation thousands years ago, in this essay, I focus on the reclaimed rice paddies in the western part of Korea that were built mostly during the 1980s. As environmental historians of modern Korea recently have examined in detail, urban areas of South Korea experienced emerging pollution problems brought on by rapid industrialization during the 1980s, which was the time that most considered “the great acceleration era” of South Korea(McNeill & Engelke, 2016). However, in this same age, it has been less explored that rural areas near the sea such as west coast villages in South Korea went through unprecedented environmental transformations by way of large coastal reclamation projects for large-scale rice farming(Choi, 2014). The first company-led reclamation project, known as the Seosan A and B Reclamation Project(or Cheonsuman Bay Reclamation Project) has mostly been considered as the representative historical event that brough about the largest change in the lives of the local people. Although these big changes in local villages still have to be explored, I argue that it is necessary to examine the Cheonsuman Bay case with more-than-human perspectives.
Cheonsuman Bay is one of the most popular places for migratory birds wintering in South Korea. Every winter, approximately more than 320 species of wintertime birds come. It is intriguing that this habitat that migratory birds are foraging in and inhabiting is mostly rice paddies. What makes paddies of Cheonsuman Bay make special is that the place was artificially constructed by a massive reclamation project 40 years ago. This place used to be known for the richness of fish stocks, and was an area where tidal flats and the oceans allowed most local people to follow fishery as their profession.
The big changes was commenced in 1979 when the Korean government issued permission to Hyundai Engineering & Construction to carry out the largest-ever reclamation project which aimed to create new large paddy fields from tidal flats on the west coast of South Korea. The project began in 1980, and was completed in 1995. As a result, the 7.7 km-long area of the coastal line was filled up and a 154.08 km2
-area of new land was created in the region. In particular, 120 km2
-area of the reclaimed land was constructed as paddy fields. This was approximately 0.75% of the total arable farmland at the time, and its production of rice accounted for about 1% of the rice produced. This was a case where the largest ever area of rice paddies was abruptly created at once by a single reclamation project.
This massive landscape change led to a dramatic shift in the lives of the people living in Cheonsuman Bay as well as the migratory birds visiting every winter in South Korea. Since 1995, when large-scale rice farming was in full swing, Cheonsuman Bay became the most crowded wintertime birds habitat, followed by the Nakdong Estuary.1)
News articles at that time reported that the map of migratory bird habitats of South Korea had changed.2)
It was found that the the particular farming method for the bay’s fields has offered the reason is what attracts the wintertime birds to Cheonsuman Bay. The way of cultivating rice paddies of Cheonsuman Bay is different from that of individual farmers. Hyundai Engineering and Construction farmed rice by themselves in the vast fields of Cheonsuman Bay directly after the project was completed. They refer to their farming as American-style “commercialized farming” or “mechanized farming.”3)
A light plane was utilized to spray rice seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides in the vast fields. This can be contrasted with the cultivation method applied by small-scale rice farming(which uses human power). Furthermore, a larger combines was mobilized to harvest grains in the vast farmland. The cultivation of these expansive of paddy fields invited unexpected guests.
Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing proposed the term “Plantationocene” to refer to the disruption of multispecies relations that is hard to express with the term “Anthropocene” only (Haraway & Tsing, 2019). A plantation is a large-scale farm for the commercial plants such as oil palms, bananas, and cotton. Plantations simplify and disorder interspecies relations. They are run by not only by human labor but also by non-human labor(Haraway & Tsing, 2019).
With regard to the scale of the farm, rice farming in Cheonsuman Bay could be considered as Korean version of plantation farming. However, unlike other plantations that emerged with European colonialism, the paddy fields of Cheonsuman Bay took a different route. After the large-scale reclamation projects, Cheonsuman Bay emerged as the largest wintering site for wild migratory birds in Korea and has consistently been managed as a kind of wildlife habitat for migratory birds so far.
Despite the massive destruction of the ecosystem, this accidental multispecies relationship that emerged in Cheonsuman Bay has been maintained so far. I point out two distinct practices that transformd relocated rice paddies from human-made environments to wild birds habitats. One is the ecological monitoring program and the other is feeding wild birds in rice paddies every winter. Those two distinct practices enact migrant birds to be wild animals properly inhabiting human-made rice paddies, and not to be agricultural pests. These new practices of surveying and feeding continue to allow more and more wintering birds to visit Cheonsuman Bay so far. In sum, the Cheonsuman Bay story gives us a clue about the way how to find a hope for interspecies coexistence even after the massive and destructive changes to landscapes. Bibliography
An Seung-mo, Reconsidering the sorori rice husk remains. Korean Archeological Journal
Choi, Y. R. (2014). Modernization, development and underdevelopment: reclamation of Korean tidal flats, 1950s–2000s. Ocean & Coastal Management 102
Haraway D. & Tsing, A. (2019). Reflections on the plantationocene: A conversation with Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing. Edge Effects 12
McNeill, J. R., & Engelke, P. (2016). The great acceleration: An environmental history of the Anthropocene since 1945
. Harvard University Press.
Ruddiman, W. F. (2003). The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago. Climatic change 61(3), 261-293.