An unlikely and unique cradle of biodiversity that runs the length of the world’s most heavily-militarized border is being threatened by encroaching development, conservation experts say.
Once described by former US president Bill Clinton as “the scariest place on Earth,” the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula between North and South was created after the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Four kilometers wide and 248km long, it is a no-man’s land bristling with the landmines and listening posts of two nations that technically remain at war.
As a military buffer zone, it remains an area of profound Cold War hostility, but its man-made isolation has also created an accidental park recognized as one of the most well-preserved, temperate habitats on Earth.
Cutting across mountains, prairies, swamps, lakes and tidal marshes, it has become a protected home for an astonishing variety of plants and animals, including 82 endangered species.
Now experts attending the ongoing World Conservation Congress on South Korea’s southern Jeju Island, say redevelopment of land bordering the DMZ is putting the future of the wildlife haven at risk.
“The DMZ is so impressive in biodiversity in terms of its ecosystem due to its remoteness and no human impact,” Uwe Riecken, director of biotope protection at the German Federal Agency for Nature told a Congress workshop.
The immediate threat is to the large strips of land that form a “civilian restricted zone” adjoining the DMZ on both sides.
Farmland abandoned after the war, the restricted zone has reverted back to forest and wetlands, providing a habitat for wildlife.
“But now this is being converted back to agricultural or ginseng farms, changing the habitat of both the wild animals and plants,” said Park Eun-jin, an environmentalist at South Korea’s Gyeonggi Research Institute.
Although relations between North and South remain volatile, recent efforts to reduce tensions have resulted in more permits being granted for land-use in the restricted zone.
Experts at the conservation congress said the two Koreas would have to try to work together to prevent human resettlement of the area from disrupting the delicately-balanced ecosystem created over the past six decades.
Jeong Hoi-seong, president of the South Korean Institute for the Environment and Civilization, said the South should consider “economic incentives” to ensure the impoverished North’s cooperation.
South Korea has sought international recognition of the DMZ region as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, but the UN body has demurred, citing territorial uncertainties among other factors.
In a presentation to the congress in Jeju, the executive director of UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Sector, Han Qunli, said this did not mean the area could not be granted special status in the future.