Sustaining a Korean Traditional Rural Landscape in the Context of a Cultural Landscape

Danping Wang, University of Massachusetts

Jung, Hae-Joon; Ryu, Je-Hun. “Sustaining a Korean Traditional Rural Landscape in the Context of Cultural Landscape.” Sustainability. 2015, 7, 11213-11239


This paper is a case study of the past researches on the preservation activities around terraced paddy fields, a traditional agricultural landscape in East Asian countries. Due to depopulation, urbanization and the introduction of intensive agriculture, China, Japan and Korea all confront the issue of both rapid and continuous decline in rice terraced fields and the lost of traditional agricultural knowledge and culture. There have been related preservation activities on the ground in the past few decades, but assessment of the success of these practices revealed mixed results. This paper takes a close look at Dr. Hae-Joon Jung’s newly published paper “Sustaining a Korean Traditional Rural Landscape in the Context of Cultural Landscape, where he evaluates past preservation activities in Gacheon village, Korea using policy documents, preservation reports from the government and interviews with different stakeholders including preservationists, government officials and local residents as well. Scholars have been paying more and more attention to diverse voices in preservation-related studies, yet local residents’ evaluation of the effectiveness of the preservation activities has largely been neglected in previous studies. Jungs study reminds scholars of the importance of including the voice of local community in the assessment of preservation activities. This study discusses four key issues in traditional agricultural landscape conservation, namely multi-functionality and ecosystem services of traditional agricultural landscape, tourism development as a preservation means, the function of government subsidy, and community engagement in the preservation. Jung’s case study, research on preserving rice terraces in East Asia and other studies on preserving traditional agricultural landscape more broadly reveal the overall trend of understanding traditional agricultural landscapes as living and evolving systems, in which nature and culture interact with each other. Based on such acknowledgement, practitioners should reconsider their practices on tourism development, allocation of government subsidies, and the development of community-involved programs.  

Importance or new knowledge

Jung’s study evaluates the effectiveness of past preservation activities in Gacheon village, Korea. Even though scholars have already realized the necessity of valuing multiple stakeholders’ perspectives in preserving traditional agricultural landscape, the voice of local community, especially their assessment of the effectiveness of preservation activities has been largely ignored in previous studies. Jung conducts interviews not only with government officials and preservationist, but local residents as well. With information from local residents, Jung gains a better understanding of past preservation activities and his study reveals the importance of including voices from local community in the preservation of traditional agricultural landscape.

Preservation of Terraced Paddy Fields in East Asia: Past and Present 

Traditional agricultural landscapes are the result of long term interaction between culture and nature, and the past and the present. Traditional agricultural landscapes are not only important for their role in securing food supplies, but also in protecting ecosystems, biodiversity, traditional agriculture knowledge, and the identities of local communities. Terraced paddy fields are one of the most distinctive traditional agricultural landscapes in East Asian countries. Terraced paddy fields have been one of the most important sources of food production for mountain dwellers in in rural areas of East Asia. However, due to demographic changes, increasing urbanization, the introduction of modernized agricultural methods, and climate change, terraced paddy fields have declined in number and been under threat for decades. China, Japan and Korea have all confronted the issue of continuous decline in terraced paddy fields and the loss of traditional agriculture knowledge and culture that decline represents. Preservation efforts have bee ongoing for decades, but an assessment of the success or failure of these efforts reveals mixed results.

Scholars from diverse disciplines have paid great attention to studying the effectiveness of preserving terraced paddies in the hope of providing suggestion to improve future policy-making. Related research has emerged especially in the last decade in both East Asian and international academia. Dr. Hae-Joon Jung’s newly published research, “Sustaining a Korean Traditional Rural Landscape in the Context of Cultural Landscape,” is of particular interest. Jung’s research offers inspiration for future study and also an assessment of the effectiveness of practice in the field. Jung’s case study is based in Gacheon village, a coastal community which is surrounded by rice terraces on a steep slope in a southernmost region of the Korean Peninsula. Rice produced from the terrace has historically been the most significant source of food for local residents. However, in the last three decades, the rice terraces have declined in number and productivity because of urbanization, demographic change, and relatively low productivity compared modern rice paddies on flat land. For decades, the Korean government has made efforts to preserve the historic rice terraces in the picturesque village. Dr. Jung’s study looks into these past preservation practices and especially treats key issues affecting their management, including the increased multi-functionality of the terraces, the use of government subsidies, the changing population of the village, changing agricultural systems, tourism, landscape heritage designations, and community engagement in preservation efforts. He suggests that the central government should play the role of facilitator and negotiator to help raise awareness of the need and desirability of preservation as well as its benefits. He encourages more community engagement in the preservation process, arguing that both tangible and intangible values of the traditional agricultural landscape should be explored and preserved by taking into account many different viewpoints.

The method Jung uses in this study is one of the most significant aspects of this research. Jung uses secondary literature related to the subject of rice paddy conservation, generally, and primary sources, in the form of interviews with multiple stakeholders. He looks into both policy documents and preservation reports from central and local governments, as well as related scholarship. But more significantly for his assessment of the effectiveness in Gaechon Village, he conducted three rounds of in-depth interviews with local residents, government officials, and heads of preservation organizations.

Using interviews in cultural landscape study is not a pioneering undertaking. Scholars have applied this method in different case studies. For example, Qiu and his team interview local government officials and the heads of terrace conservation organizations in their study of terraced paddy fields conservation in Shiroyone Senmaida (Qiu, 2014). Zhou and her team conduct intensive interviews with local residents and use questionnaires in their study of community engagement in the preservation of Longji terrace in Guilin, China (Zhou, 2016). In the research of Japanese Tanada ownership system as an effort of preserving rice terrace, Kieninger uses participatory observation, personal communication, semi-structured expert interview and questionnaire-based surveys (Kieninger, 2011). What distinguishes Jung’s study from others is that he pays special attention to interviewing local residents and then puts answers extracted from the interviews into conversation with each other. The interviews with local residents help Jung better understand the values which local residents have assigned to the rice terraces, and to grasp what local residents think about preservation practices. It is with the help of interview with local residents that Jung reports on different attitudes towards tourism development in the village. Younger and older generations have different attitudes, as do residents who are in the bed and breakfast (or other tourist related) business and residents who continue to farm the land. Jung better understands the cultural meanings embedded in the rice terrace landscape and how that landscape forms part of the identity of local residents in Gacheon village through these interviews.

The emphasis Jung puts on interviews with local residents indicates the trend of valuing multiple voices, especially from local communities, in heritage preservation. It is stated clearly in the Natchitoches Declaration on Heritage Landscape that preservation organizations should “foster the development of guidelines and principles of practice for the inclusion of consultative, community-based processes in the planning and management of heritage landscapes; support the understanding and continuation of traditional practices in the stewardship of heritage landscapes; recognize that multi-values are present in heritage landscapes and that multiple voices, including strong community engagement, need to be brought to their protection and management; respect the living traditions and footprints of indigenous peoples that permeate the heritage landscape.” (ICOMOS, 2004) Local residents are the bearers of traditional culture and agricultural knowledge and are therefore the stewards of the agricultural landscape. Without the active participation of local residents, the preservation of agricultural landscapes cannot be sustained. But the opinions of the effectiveness of of preservation practice among local community members has arguably been neglected in most research on this topic. Scholars and practitioners tend towards gaining information from government officials or preservationists who are believed to have more comprehensive understanding of preservation efforts, and too often ignore the opinions of those living in and maintaining these living landscapes. It is of great importance to know how local residents think of past and current preservation practices, clearly, and to respond to their concerns. Only then can researchers provide feasible advice for future policy-making.

In this research, Jung acknowledges many other issues central to traditional agricultural landscape conservation, including tourism development, the role of central and local governments, and community engagement. These issues are not only essential for Korean landscape conservation, but in the management of traditional agricultural landscape, generally.

The multi-functionality of rice terraces in Gacheon Village, is one example. In this management approach, the terraced paddies are valued for food production, but also for ecosystem improvement, biodiversity and habitat, and aesthetic beauty. The concept of multi-functionality was first introduced by Agriculture Ministers of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in 1998. The Ministerial Communiqué recognizes that “beyond its primary function of supplying food and fiber, agricultural activity can also shape the landscape, provide environmental benefits such as land conservation, the sustainable management of renewable natural resources and the preservation of biodiversity, and contribute to the socio-economic viability of many rural areas (OECD, 2001).” While the commodity outputs of agricultural landscape have been increasing, its non-commodity outputs such as protecting ecosystem, sustaining biodiversity have gone through a rapid decline in the past decades (OCED, 2001).

In acknowledgement of the multi-functionality of the traditional agricultural landscape, and as an effort to preserve its multi-functionality, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) project in 2002, in which GIAHS are considered as “remarkable land use systems and landscapes which are rich in globally significant biological diversity evolving from the co-adaptation of a community with its environment and its needs and aspirations for sustainable development.” (FAO, 2016) GIAHS acknowledges traditional agricultural landscape as a living, evolving system of human society interacting with the nature. As we can tell from its criteria and features, food security, biodiversity and ecosystem function, knowledge system, Agro-culture system and landscape and resources management were valued. Until 2015, there were altogether 21 GIAHS sites in East Asia, among which eleven are in China, seven are in Japan and two are in the Republic of Korea. Among these twenty-one sites, there are three terraced rice paddy systems.

The concept of “ecosystem services” is also of great importance to the discussion of preserving traditional agricultural landscapes. As stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), ecosystem services include provisioning, supporting, regulating, and cultural services (MA, 2005). Acknowledging the significance of diverse ecosystem services, researchers have already implemented the concept into their research in order to come up with suggestion for better preservation (Dale et al, 2007; Huang et al, 2006; Xiao et al, 2005; Xie at al, 2005).

In close relation to the acknowledgement of multi-functionality is the idea of tourism development as a means to help preserve traditional agricultural landscapes. Some scholars advocate eco-tourism as a way to promote local economies while preserving landscape features (He and Min, 2013), whereas other scholars question the idea that tourism actually benefits local economies and bring up the negative implications of tourism, such as further abandonment of rice terrace and loss of traditional culture (Jung, 2015).

While scholars find eco-tourism an alternative to facilitate the development of local economy and preserve landscape features in the same time, they also point out existing challenges and ask for more consideration on how to promote eco-tourism in an appropriate manner. In Juns’s case study, he notices that after the village was designated as a tourist site, numerous hotels were built alongside the village which do not work in harmony with natural landscape. With outside investment pouring in, many inhabitants began selling their properties, which were then developed as recreational facilities or to grow profitable crops rather than rice (Jung, 2015). In a case study of rice terrace conservation in Northwest Yunnan mountain areas in China, Yang points out that the development of tourism did not stimulate local farmers to adopt a more ecological farming measures but furthered the intensification of agriculture (Yang, 2009). In order to promote tourism that can better serve the community and the preservation of traditional agricultural landscape, he proposes that “we should not only treat tourism just as one function of agriculture, but also make a fair and sustainable use of other agricultural functions to ensure their mutual support in realization of integral regional development (He and Min, 2013).”

In Jung’s case study, we see a clear transition from a “top-down” approach to a “bottom-up” method of working with local communities. The preservation of the Gaechon rice terraces began in 2000 with a direct payment program from the central government. Different government subsidy projects in the village had their own weaknesses. The same phenomenon exists in the preservation of rice terraces in Japan, in which conservation began with a direct payment system but did not work well (Qiu, 2014). One of the downsides of direct government subsidy is that it is not enough to make up the financial gap created when traditional agricultural methods are maintained. Some subsidy programs may even lead local residents in a wrong direction. In order to get a subsidy from the direct payment program initiated by the Korean government in 2005 which encourages local residents to cultivate landscape crops to beautify rural landscape, local residents converted terraces into dry land, which ultimately destroyed the terrace landscape (Jung, 2015). That being said, government subsidies and financial support are still very significant in preserving rice terraces. How to create a more suitable subsidy program to boost local economies and increase local interest in continuing to work the land is essential. It is necessary to come up with a reasonable compensation plan in order to keep farmers on the land continuing their traditional agricultural practices. As suggested by several scholars, payment should also be made for all ecosystem services (Liu et al, 2014). Food supply, ecological benefits, and cultural and aesthetic value should all be quantified, calculated and included into the government subsidy.

Jung emphasizes the significance of community engagement in preserving rice terrace throughout his study. Community engagement is important because it is the means of including traditional management practices and traditional culture in the preservation. Local communities are the stewards who can maintain traditional agricultural landscapes in a sustainable way. Jung presents the transition from a centralized preservation policy to a more localized one in the second decade of the twenty-first century. As shown in his research, local government and grassroots organization took a more active and dominant position in the past few years in regard to preservation (Jung, 2015).

Acknowledging the multi-functionality and diverse ecosystem services of traditional agricultural landscapes, scholars throughout the world have focused on the “functional recovery of terraced landscapes,” in which they try to encourage families to continue the cultivation of sometimes abandoned terraces (Varotto and Lodatti, 2014). In the United States, the idea of “civic agriculture,” which brings together people from both rural areas and cities in producing and consuming agricultural products, has been promoted in the last decade. East Asian countries also have similar approaches in response to the abandonment of agricultural land, and the increase in intensive agricultural production. “One Heritage, One Keeper” (Jung, 2015) and “Tanada Owner System” (Kieninger, 2011; Qiu, 2014) are two examples from Korea and Japan to deal with decrease of farmer working in the agricultural landscape and even abandonment of former rice terrace.

Jung’s research sheds light on future study and provides researchers with inspirations on how to include voices from local communities in the preservation of traditional agricultural landscapes. Even though we have seen progress in preserving rice terraces in the last decades, there are still many unsolved challenges, including the aging of local residents who work the land, the younger generation’s growing disconnection with the land, the conflict between tourism development and the preservation of traditional agriculture practices, and the conflict between modern development and ecological protection. These are the issues faced by all nations in consideration of traditional agricultural landscapes and they need to be addressed if we are to pass down this agricultural heritage to future generations.

Based on the discussion of Jung’s research and other research on preserving rice terraces and traditional agricultural landscapes more broadly, we can see the overall trend of understanding traditional agricultural landscapes as living and evolving systems, in which nature and culture interact with each other. By realizing the multi-functionality and ecosystem services of traditional agricultural landscapes, practitioners should reconsider their practices on tourism development, government subsidies, and community-involved program development.

Work Cited

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