Ever since transboundary biosphere reserves were first launched, scientists in East Asia have dreamed of setting up border-straddling nature sanctuaries in both the Korean demilitarized zone and in the Kuril Islands, which encompass the long-contested Northern Territories occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan.
There are a total of five UNESCO-recognized TBRs in the world today, but all lie in Europe, ranging from France and Germany’s Vosges Du Nord Park, to the Danube Delta between Romania and Ukraine, to the East Carpathians Natural Park, cooperatively managed by Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. Four TBRs have been proposed in East Asia, including the DMZ.
The DMZ and Kurils situations are not identical. While Korea’s 38th parallel is off-limits to all, the Kurils have been occupied since World War II by Russia. But Japan’s economic boycott and the remoteness of the southern Kurils from central Russia have effectively sealed off the area from large-scale development. Recognizing the abundance of biodiversity on the islands, the Soviet Union set up a nature sanctuary in the area in 1984. Of the four disputed islands, two-thirds of three (Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai) are included in the Kurilsky State Nature Reserve. Etorofu, also claimed by Japan, is outside the sanctuary but remains a wilderness with few inhabitants. Only about 20,000 people, either born on the Kurils or migrants from other parts of Russia, dwell on the islands; Habomai remains uninhabited.
Nonetheless, on both the Korean Peninsula and on the Kurils, the end result is the same: Diplomatic disputes have yielded de facto nature reserves, housing some of the most priceless treasure troves of biodiversity on earth. The Kurils have been described by Japanese scientists as a trip back in time to the era before Japan became a concrete paradise. Many species extinct (tufted puffin) or endangered (Blakiston’s fish owl) in Japan are thriving on the Kurils, which also remain remarkably free of invasive exotic species. There are about 800 tree, grass and plant species on the islands, and at least 227 varieties of birds, as well as lush marine life in the surrounding waters.
While at least South Korea has embraced the TBR plan, and North Korean representatives have expressed support for it, Japan, however, has staunchly opposed any proposal that would dilute its territorial claim to the Northern Territories. Two years ago, Japanese conservationists, working with their counterparts on the Kurilsky Nature Reserve, tried to seek World Heritage Site status for an area encompassing both Japan’s Shiretoko Peninsula and the Kurils. (World Heritage Sites are not legal entities, but gaining such status helps raise the profile of areas considered noteworthy for their cultural, historical or wildlife importance.) But the effort died almost as soon as it started, quickly squelched by Tokyo. For its part, since the late 1990s, Japan has allowed a handful of scientists to travel to the Kurils on rushed, government-monitored “visa-less” trips to do biological surveys of otters, seabirds, volcanoes and plants.
Moscow has been silent on the subject of a TBR in the Kurils, but Russian scientists have met frequently with their Japanese counterparts since the mid-1990s, and Japanese NGOs have funneled thousands of dollars in direct aid to the Kurilsky Nature Reserve, which has struggled to operate since the Asian financial crisis. The funds have bolstered patrols and purchased transport fuel to fight an epidemic of poaching in the Okhotsk Sea-Kuril Islands area.
“Conserving the islands is in the best interests of the peoples of Russia, Japan and the rest of the world,” Japanese and Russian scientists declared in an unusual joint statement last year, urging full-fledged efforts to protect the biodiversity of the islands. “By working together to protect the wilderness of these islands, our countries would make a huge contribution to environmental conservation as well as to world peace.”
There is no sign of a thaw in the 50-year-old Kurils territorial dispute, nor any indication that the Kurils will return to Japanese hands soon. Particularly for overdeveloped Japan, which has consigned much of its natural riches to oblivion in order to benefit the construction industry, conserving the Kurils through a cross-border reserve is the best way to honor and protect the lands of their ancestors for future generations.