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[Weekender] Gotjawal: The mysterious forest that keeps dying to survive
Some 31% of Jeju Island’s “gotjawal” destroyed by urban developmentBy Kim Hae-yeon
Published : Aug. 7, 2021 - 16:01
Yet death pays a crucial role to the island’s survival. English writer Virginia Woolf’s observation on life and death in humans also applies to mother nature: “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.”
If you are wondering how the island’s rocky terrain, covered in lush green vegetation, survived being exposed to volcanic lava, the answer is to be found in the name “gotjawal.”
An official dictionary on Jeju dialect maintained by the Jeju provincial government defines gotjawal as an unmanned and unapproachable forest mixed with trees and bushes -- “Got” meaning forest and “jawal,” thickets or rubble. Jeju locals have traditionally called forests on rocky ground gotjawal.
Gotjawal have three key features, according to forest experts today -- soilless rocky areas, some 750 plants specific to the ecosystem and rainwater penetration deep down to the aquifer.
Gotjawal has a unique life cycle. Small and weak trees that grow through the rocks turn into thorny bushes as a protection mechanism. Vines then climb onto the bushes, and the shade formed by the vines causes some trees to receive less sunlight than others. When a tree dies, the place is left vacant and is more exposed. The spot then becomes a favorable environment for short trees, once again, to survive, with the dead tree nourishing the new.
Accounting for 5 percent of Jeju’s land area, gotjawal forests are scattered along the east-west axis of the island, and concentrated between the island’s midland and coastal areas.
Gotjawal have traditionally served as a buffer between the inhabited coastal areas and the mountainous regions used as ranches for horse grazing, with the average altitude ranging from 200 meters to 600 meters.
A skyrocketing number of travelers to Jeju Island since the early 2002 was followed by urban development and construction of commercial facilities. Developers bulldozed some 29.6 square kilometers, or 31.9 percent, of gotjawal land, according to a Ministry of Environment report in 2012. The two main reasons for the destruction of gotjawal have been the construction of golf courses and tourism-related facilities. Once destroyed, gotjawal cannot be regenerated.
Four gotjawal regions have been singled out for their well-preserved conditions -- Hankyung-Andeok Gotjawal and Aewol Gotjawal in the west, Jocheon- Hamdeok Gotjawal and Gujawa-Seongsan Gotjawal in the east.
Below are The Korea Herald’s recommendations for learning about Jeju’s natural environment and the island’s history.
Hwansang Forest Gotjawal Park
The forest’s eco-trail is divided into three main loops that are accessible year-round. Although the terrain is quite rough with large boulders and overgrown vegetation, sturdy walkways have been designed to minimize the environmental impact.
Gallery exhibition, “The eternal forest, Got”
The exhibition “The eternal forest, Got” presents a series of paintings by artist Kim Bok-shin based on observations and reimaginations of gotjawal and their trees.
Although Jeju Island’s beautiful beaches are popular today, Kim grew up in a part of Jeju surrounded by dense forests.
“Got was everything to me and my family when we went through difficult times,” Kim said.
In Kim’s paintings, specks of light contrast with the otherwise dark forests, hinting at the artist’s wishes for the preservation of gotjawal.
Opened on July 16, the exhibition runs until Oct. 6.
Gotjawal Ecology Experience Museum
The museum is managed and operated by the Gotjawal Trust of Jeju, a nonprofit organization established in 2007 by locals interested in their preservation. The trust is currently undertaking a 10-year-plan to turn privately owned gotjawal forests into public land.
With around 16 billion won ($14 million) in donations received so far, the trust has turned 0.86 square kilometers of privately-owned gotjawal land into public land.
The trust’s projects are also include mapping out plans to better maintain gotjawal by replacing and cleaning up groundwater supplies.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.
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