|▲ UNESCO decides to elevate Jeju’s haenyeo to Intangible Cultural Heritage status Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Jeju Haenyeo culture has finally been given its due: as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
UNESCO inscription was granted on Nov. 30 at the 11th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Korea’s national government began the application process in March of 2014 and completed it last year, though it was initially wait-listed by UNESCO.
Much has been written, in The Jeju Weekly and elsewhere, about Jeju’s community of free-diving women, many of them elderly.
In brief, theirs is a traditional labor practice, documented as early as 503 CE in Korea’s Goguryeo era. The diving work had become a female-only domain by the late 19th century and professionalized in the early 20th century under Japanese rule.
The skill set of these remarkable free-divers, known in Jeju dialect as “muljil” (water work), is situated in a cultural matrix of matrifocal mythology; shamanic rituals to sea gods, including the annual jamsu-gut and seaside shrines or “haesin-dang”; communal space known as “bulteok” in which business is conducted and knowledge transmitted; labor songs; tools of the trade; traditionally, a cotton diving costume; and, a community orientation based in collective economics and mutual aid.
At the core is their specific knowledge and skills, gained experientially through decades of diving work, which constitute indigenous wisdom.
A large-scale community celebration of the UNESCO inscription was held on Dec. 14 at the International Convention Center in Jungmun, to honor the Jeju haenyeo. While all would agree that these impressive women deserve recognition, questions linger as to what benefit the UNESCO designation brings – to Jeju, to the haenyeo themselves – and what, beyond title, is its significance.
|▲ A “bulteok”, or haenyeo communal work space Photo courtesy The Jeju Haenyeo Museum
The value of UNESCO inscription, though not without its detractors, is recognized throughout the world. UNESCO itself states that inscription for Intangible Cultural Heritage brings with it an expectation that the relevant national government will (a) create and maintain an inventory of the tradition; (b) establish policies and procedures, as well as financial measures, to ensure its safeguarding; and, (c) support the recognition and respect due the tradition by means of educational and public awareness programs, capacity-building, support, and knowledge transmission.
UNESCO also makes funding available, particularly to developing nations and/or for those traditions under imminent threat of extinction.
The distinction of “safeguarding” versus “preservation” is highlighted by UNESCO. While preservation refers to the maintenance of a current practice, safeguarding focuses on transmission of the traditional knowledge, skills, and meaning from its current skill holders to subsequent generations. This is deemed the only sustainable path to ensure that cultural heritage prevails.
With UNESCO inscription comes responsibility on the part of governing bodies, including periodic reporting, inspection, and inscription renewal – or not. This tends to serve as a powerful motivation for governments to meet expectations and follow through on their plans for safeguarding the tradition; once obtained, through a hard-won process, losing the inscription again is unthinkable.
The Jeju haenyeo community has steadily declined in number since the mid-1960s. From a peak of 23,000, only 4,415 were registered in 2014. Of this number, 3,685 were over age 60, with 1,279 of those over 80 years of age; only 663 were in their 50s, while a mere 67 were younger.
In the last several years, only 7-10 new haenyeo have been registered annually, with 11 new divers in 2015. There is also an annual rate of 7-10 diving fatalities; in 2014, 9 haenyeo died while diving, 6 of whom were 70+ years of age.
Jeju provincial government has instilled measures since 2002 to help ensure such intergenerational transmission. A program was established for creating artificial reefs and marine “forests” or enhanced conditions for the growth of prized seaweed varieties, which continues to this day.
The government also began subsidizing medical care for haenyeo. Safety measures were initiated, and subsidy was provided for wetsuits.
The Haenyeo Museum was built in 2006, and a new Children’s Education Wing recently added; the Haenyeo Festival has been held annually since 2007.
Two haenyeo schools have been developed: Hansupul Haenyeo School (est. 2007) in Gwideok-2 Village, east of Hallim; and, Beophwan Jamnyeo School (est. 2015) in Beophwan Village, east of Seogwipo. In 2009, the provincial Ordinance for the Preservation and Transmission of Jeju Haenyeo Culture was enacted.
The government also provides several safety-related trainings and projects; contributes to the mutual aid fund of each haenyeo society; supports construction and maintenance of modern changing facilities; finances repair and maintenance of work areas; provides a crane for large-scale catch, as well as boats for patrol; and, develops and maintains performance and experience sites.
Several proposed means of support will soon be initiated. Of primary concern is income supplementation, to include reseeding and fortification of seabeds devastated by climate change, and the establishment of alternate revenue sources.
In addition to routine reseeding of both mollusc and seaweed species and the establishment of marine forests, “marine ranching” is now underway, in which seabeds are enhanced to encourage the development of catch species.
Haenyeo markets and restaurants continue to be established, and performances and experiential programs for tourists introduced. Stabilization of conch pricing is a priority, as market fluctuations of this primary catch contribute to divers’ economic instability. Re-establishment of the traditional “halmang-badang” (grandmother sea) is encouraged: shallows reserved for elderly haenyeo to help ensure their safety and livelihood.
In 2015, Jeju provincial government spent an estimated 7.710 billion KRW (approximately 6.5 million USD) to sustain the haenyeo community. Primary foci going forward include conch price stabilization, simplification of the new member application process, continued revitalization of fishing grounds, and alternate sources of income for haenyeo.
Jeju government has identified haenyeo culture as the primary resource for global promotion of Jeju cultural heritage. Jeju is a member organization of United Cities and Local Governments [UCLG] with Governor Won Hee-ryong as current president of the Asia-Pacific region, and was a participant in UCLG’s “Culture in Sustainable Cities” 2-year pilot project. In May of 2017, Jeju will host the second UCLG Culture Summit.
Also underway, sponsored by Jeju government with 9 cooperating organizations, is an application to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation [FAO] for inclusion of Jeju haenyeo culture in its Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems [GIAHS] Programme.
The initiative promotes public awareness and understanding of heritage as well as national and international support, and listing the haenyeo culture would provide further sustainability in added brand value and conservation and management systems.
One might well ask why a traditional practice is worthy of such extreme efforts for safeguarding. Beyond nostalgia and tourism, what is the value of maintaining heritage? Without modern relevance, traditions are extinguished.
Researchers at Jeju Development Institute [JDI] have attributed contemporary meanings to the traditional haenyeo culture. These include: biodiversity, eco-friendly / sustainable labor practice, conservation, food security, self-regulating organization, women’s cultural space, reciprocal community / mutual aid, collective / shared economics, and indigenous wisdom.
Jeju haenyeo culture has much to teach today’s world. In this, perhaps, is the most meaningful purpose of safeguarding - and its most long-term and wide-reaching goal.
Dr. Hilty is a New York cultural psychologist, now based in Hong Kong after many years on Jeju Island. She is the author of Jeju Haenyeo: Stewards of the Sea (2015) and Jeju Island: Reaching to the Core of Beauty (2011) as well as numerous related articles, and is a government-appointed Honorary Ambassador for Jeju Island since 2014.