conservation PHOTOGRAPHEr & Environmental writer
The Bogus Olympic Agenda
South Korea is proudly hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics but at what cost? The strongly choreographed glamour of the event masks a level of ecological destruction and duplicity that should have brought shame on their country. And yet, it barely raised an international eyebrow.
The 2018 Pyeonchang Winter Olympics have commendably proclaimed sustainability, credibility and youth as the 3 symbolic pillars of the event. Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), confidently stated that “all our decisions will be informed by the sustainability principles.” This is backed up by a well-devised #Sustainability Strategy. All good so far!
Yet, behind this environmentally responsible façade, a local non-profit organisation called Uiryong People were battling with this very same International Olympic Committee (#IOC) to protect a 500-year old forest on Mount Gariwang. It appears that despite the IOC’s environmental rhetoric they were seeking to fell this ancient cultural forest for a 3-day Alpine Skiing event!
The Uiryong People sought to strengthen their case by noting all the important trees with a GPS. Not only was the forest home to the culturally important ‘Grandma Mountain God Ash Tree’ but it was home to the largest area of an endemic birch species. Of course, endemic species give rise to a whole interacting ecosystem of other unique and specialised species. Some, such as the Diamond Bluebell, is listed as #endangered on the IUCN’s Red List.
The South Korean government’s promise to restore this 500-year old forest after the #Olympics was met with scepticism by the Global Forest Coalition (#GFC). “The forests on Mount Gariwang are not ‘restorable’ to their original state because they are composed of an intrinsically balanced mixture of tens of different temperate broadleaf and coniferous tree species.’
Jagoda Munic, Chairperson of Friends of the Earth International highlighted further frustration with the IOC. “There is already existing infrastructure in the region that can be used for the Olympic Games, and it is both ecologically and economically damaging to build a new ski slope to be used for 3 days only.”
The forest was in an Ecosystem Preservation Zone and its unique biodiversity ensured it was designated a Protected Area for Forest Genetic Resource Conservation. The age of the trees also protected them according to the Ministry of Environment.
If that wasn’t enough, since the Chosun dynasty in the 14th Century, its cultural heritage also meant it was regarded as a ‘royal, forbidden mountain.' Any thought of destroying such a site, especially for an Olympics that values the environment, seemed incomprehensible and legally impossible.
So how was the battle lost? According to Games Monitor, a site that ‘debunks Olympic myths,’ in August 2013, South Korea’s Forest Service lifted the Protected Area designation specifically for the Alpine Ski event. However, the final decision to fell this ancient forest lay in the hands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Ski Federation (#ISF).
The IOC was reminded of their self-espoused environmental pledges and the ISF were reminded that they could invoke the ‘exceptional circumstances’ rule allowing the YongPyong ski course to be used. Despite a logical and ethical alternative, both organisations gave the go-ahead for felling this sacred ecological treasure.
And this is where it gets even worse. The felling of the forest began just as South Korea began hosting the world-renowned XXII Convention on Biological Diversity. Not only did this demolish the IOC’s sustainability pillar, but, it also obliterates their credibility pillar! Their ensuing adoption of the Gangwon Declaration on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development comes across as nothing more than sanctimonious greenwashing.
A cursory examination of South Korea’s engagement with the Convention on Biological Diversity reveals their last report on Forest Ecosystems was in 2001. It was at best incomplete and lacking in verifiable detail. However, it stated that an assessment of the status and trends of its forest biological diversity and options for its conservation were underway. This may have happened but despite 8 bi-annual international meetings since then, the CBD has not published a follow-up report.
And there I end this sorry tale of the adverse impacts of a country determined to keep up with the Olympic Jones. If arbitrary removal of legislation and erroneous displays of environmental kowtowing are common to large sporting events, things need to change. An understanding of the pressures faced by countries set to host an Olympics should certainly provide a more meaningful support system.