April 19 (Jeju Weekly) The Honorable Maurice Strong is living proof that anything is possible with faith and perseverance. Despite having left formal education at high-school level, the man who introduced the United Nations, and hence the world, to environmentalism counts seven honorary professorships among his extensive list of awards. The secretary general of the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment and the first executive director of the U.N. Environment Program plans to spend his twilight years facilitating the establishment of the World Environment University in Jeju. On meeting him, one cannot fail to believe in his vision.
Strong said the idea of a World Environment University was conceived several years ago and has involved extensive consultation with interested parties in the environmental, academic and policy fields. “There are many universities that have faculties or institutes of environment,” he said, “but there is not a world network to keep them together.” Having identified that need, he felt it was natural “at this late stage of my life” to help create such a network. (Strong will turn 81 in late April.)
“Helping to create the World Environment University is the best thing I can do to make sure that this work not only continues but that a new generation of leadership can be educated and trained to ensure that our earth can still be a habitable place,” he said.
The government of Panama offered attractive incentives to locate the university there and Strong’s birthplace, Canada, also expressed interest but neither was ideal strategically. Then, two years ago, Strong came to Jeju and has since been in discussions with Jeju National University and the provincial and central governments.
He said Jeju is uniquely suited to host such a project. “When I say Jeju is very unique, I say it with knowledge of other unique and special places in the world,” he said. “It’s a number of things. One is the actual physical character of the island, which is very special, and its subtropical climate. Its location is a very big thing because it’s less than two hours from Beijing, from Seoul, from Osaka, from Tokyo - it is in the center of the biggest concentration of rural population. It is itself a living example of how to care for a very unique environment and the commitment of the self-government here, also supported by the commitment of the central government, is designed to make this a modern state but one which cares for its natural environment and is creating an example of how human beings can enhance that environment, rather than destroying it.”
The 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress on Jeju would focus the attention of the world on the island, he said. That, combined with the World Environment University would make Jeju truly a world environment center - “the center of a global network. ”
Establishing the university would be a two-stage project, with the first stage possible by the end of this year. “In the beginning, we hope that Jeju National University will start within the university a World Environment Institute, which would allow this to get started immediately, inside the structure of World Environment University.” “Under our scheme, there would be many universities and institutes that would be partners, but Jeju National University would be the main partner.”
That first stage would require an investment of about $1.5 million to $2 million, Strong said, with establishment of the university itself following gradually. “Korea and Jeju would need to take the lead at the beginning but gradually, as the university becomes more known, it will attract more funding.
Strong said his personal investment was to give his time and knowledge free of charge, and he saw it as the best way he could use his relationships and his knowledge. He has suggested a list of 25 world-renowned names to be considered as participants in WEU, all of whom he knows and has consulted with.
“They all have expressed their willingness to be associated in different ways, he said. “Some can come and actually teach a course part-time, some will teach a course at their own university and make it available here, and this will be helpful to Jeju National University, it will be helpful to Jeju and it will be helpful to the whole concept. But without the anchor of Jeju, it won’t work. The network needs a center and this will be the center.”
Asked, as a leading environmentalist who will now spend much of his time in Jeju, what advice he would give to policy-makers and residents of the island, Strong said it was important to keep Jeju as it is. “Don t allow any development on the island that will hurt the environment but rather encourage and give incentive to development that will take advantage, for example, tourism is a natural.
“It is to build the economic future of Jeju on its natural advantages and not to reduce those advantages by the wrong kind of development.”