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Nature and war

Life on land

“Human conflict can and does have devastating impacts on wildlife. Here is a contemplation on the matter from Shinagawa in Tokyo, triggered by a visit to one of our favourite galleries in this great city. It is July 2019”.

Peter and Andrea Hylands

July 28, 2023

The exhibition was called The Nature Rules: Dreaming of Earth Project.

Dreaming of Earth Project was launched by artist Jae-Eun Choi in 2014. The Hara Museum exhibition gives form to the ideas surrounding the Dreaming of Earth Project.

“To explore ways by which humans might co-exist with the creatures of the DMZ and how this rich ecosystem, the ironic result of human conflict, may be preserved for future generations”.

There are indeed places of conflict or places where conflict impacts particular species in a way that is beneficial to nature. One such place is the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) of the Korean Peninsula, where behind the razor wire fences, nature now flourishes. The DMZ is central to Jae-Eun’s Dreaming of Earth Project as formed at the Hara Museum.

Before we write about what is happening in Korea we want to touch on other examples that describe the impact of war on the natural world. The first, and here I reach for memories of stories from childhood, is about the Scottish Wildcat, the rarest mammal species in the UK, now found only in the north and east of Scotland, the species’ population hovering around 400 animals at time of writing. 

The Scottish Wildcat is so rare because it has been persecuted by gamekeepers and its habitat (mixed woodland) has been destroyed across much of its former range in Britain, today the major threat is hybridisation with the domestic cat. The fact that it exists at all in 2019 is likely to have something to do with the toll on human life, and that included Scottish gamekeepers, so tragically inflicted by the First World War. As humans suffered the Scottish Wildcat increased in numbers and distribution.

Africa, the continent with so much nature to lose, has had an endless series of conflicts that have indeed had very serious consequences on wildlife populations. There have been some exceptions, but typically wildlife during wars in Africa is exploited for food (soldiers, refugees etc) and ivory and other highly valued animal parts that can be traded on the black market.

Conflict in Africa and the frequency of that conflict have had severe impacts on wildlife populations on the continent. In the sixty plus years since 1946 more than 70 per cent of protected areas in Africa have been drawn into conflicts. Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is just one example of the impact of conflict on wildlife populations, during the prolonged civil war, 1977 to 1992, Elephant and Giraffe populations declined by 90 per cent.

“Many African great ape populations are found in areas where civil wars are raging, making conservation difficult if not impossible. The hunting of forest animals for bushmeat, once a subsistence activity, has become a major commercial enterprise throughout west and central Africa”. WWF

The opposite effects of war in Africa do occur, one often cited example is the impact of civil war in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), which helped Elephant populations increase during the 1970s for the simple reason that poaching activities were just too dangerous to contemplate.

So now back to Korea. It feels strange to sit in a restaurant, go shopping in the supermarket, go to museums and art galleries in Seoul amid the riches of South Korea when we know the DMZ is so close by and what that has meant for all Koreans in conflict and war. 

It is with these contrasts at the forefront of our minds that we think about nature and the preservation of our world.

So now back to Tokyo and the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art:

“This project places a spotlight on the rich ecosystems that have emerged within the Demilitarised Zone on the Korean Peninsula during the 65 years since the armistice and how humans may protect it and co-exist with the creatures within it”.

The area of the Demilitarised Zone is just under 250 kilometers long and four kilometers wide. There have of course been skirmishes and other incidents in the DMZ, but that aside the significantly large area has been a no go area for humans for almost 70 years. Hence nature has flourished, even among the weapons facing off north to south and the three million landmines behind the fence. The place is remarkably beautiful by the way, with its forests and mountains and wetlands.

“A land ruled by nature.”

So what nature exists in the Demilitarised Zone? There are around 2,800 species of flora and fauna, including 328 rare and endangered species including the Red-crowned Crane and Asiatic Black Bear. Of Korea’s 267 endangered species, the DMZ is home to 101 of them.

Jae-Eun Choi’s exhibition features ten other artists and architects; Shigeru Ban, Minsuk Cho, Jaeseung Jeong, Tadashi Kawamata, Kim Taedong, Lee Bul, Lee Ufan, Seung H Sang, Studio Mumbai and Studio other spaces.

The Dreaming Earth Project is created to take place in the centre of the Pyunggang Plateau within the DMZ. Each artist / architect in the exhibition has made a work which is essentially a maquette of the work they see taking its place in the DMZ, but at larger scale. So beautifully conceived and an exhibition full of hope and an expectation for peace and for greater awareness and harmony with nature.

All of these things we commend.

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