Naples, Florida — Many know the female divers of South Korea’s Jeju Island for the multiple manifestations of their exceptional strength. Theirs is a centuries-old profession, free diving 10 to 20 meters under the sea to harvest abalone, octopi, sea cucumber, conches and more. Working long hours with unpredictable pay, they revolutionized gender roles and lifted generations of families out of poverty. They are called haenyeo, and their culture is under threat of extinction due to a changing climate. In today’s modernized and globalized society, the divers of South Korea still have vital lessons to teach.
Haenyeo Through History
The work of the haenyeo, or muljil, is thought to have begun in the seventeenth century. Life on Jeju Island posed many hardships for people. Volcanic soil and frequent natural disasters such as droughts and typhoons prevented them from expanding the agricultural business beyond subsistence farming. The sea was the primary source of livelihood and their only opportunity to escape poverty.
Most believed women had the optimal body type for diving. Thus the exclusively female haenyeo tradition was born. Unable to afford an education, the haenyeo ensured that their children received one. They were and continue to be the primary supporters of their families. Many dive through their 80s.
Jeju’s matriarchal society shook Korea’s conservative gender stereotypes. For hundreds of years, people regarded the haenyeo as low-class and demeaned them due to their profession. Eventually, views evolved. The haenyeo divers of South Korea are now celebrated internationally as a symbol of strength and perseverance.
However, the difficult work that brought the haenyeo recognition also means fewer women are willing to do it. Their daughters do not want to risk their lives in the sea for an income, and since they have more options for their future, they often pursue careers in the cities. In the 1960s, the haenyeo was 26,000 strong. Now, there are about 4,000 remaining, and 84% are over 60 years old.
How the Haenyeo Overcome Poverty
Brenda Paik Sunoo spoke to The Borgen Project in an interview. She is a writer and photojournalist based in Jeju and the author of “Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea.” To write her book, she spent seven months speaking to haenyeo between 2007 and 2009 and has since become close friends with some of the women. Sunoo outlined what she believes are the three central pillars of haenyeo culture. These values have guided the haenyeo and enabled them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty for centuries.
Pillars of Haenyeo
The first pillar is opposition to greed. “There’s total respect for the generosity of the sea, and they don’t abuse that generosity,” Sunoo said. The haenyeo conduct business through fishing cooperatives, called eochongye. Democratically run, eochongye enforce regulations for haenyeo harvesting. Haenyeo cannot harvest certain seafood out of the specified season and they may not dive into certain parts of the sea. Nor may they harvest spawning sea life.
This strong conviction in moderation and sustainability allows for there always to be a supply for haenyeo to harvest. They learned through experience that over-harvesting negatively impacts their health, earnings, and the sea ecosystem off of which they live.
Giving back to the community is the second pillar of haenyeo culture. Haenyeo split the profits among each other and sell their catches to their villages. They secure a livelihood for themselves while also providing for others, committing to social responsibility. Haenyeo are obligated to do so, as they are members of associations called Jamsuhoi that hold them accountable to ethical codes.
The third pillar is the haenyeo’s drive to live purposefully. “They’re just always working, and they seldom rest. After their diving, they go back to the farm and then they’re farming,” Sunoo said. The women fulfill every duty of being born into the haenyeo profession, including constantly supporting their families.
Threats Haenyeo Face
The main threat to the haenyeo way of life, Sunoo believes, is climate change. The surface temperatures of the seas around Korea rose 1.2 degrees Celsius between 1968 and 2017. This was far more than the global average of 0.48. The older divers of South Korea have noticed that “catches are now a fraction of what was harvested decades ago.”
Contemporary haenyeo are increasingly concerned about how they will continue to earn enough money with climate change making their already toilsome jobs more challenging. Pollution is an additional concern besides warming seas. “Even when I was interviewing them, they were already telling me that their harvest is reduced,” Sunoo said. Climate change undoes the work of the haenyeo’s sustainable harvesting. Warming waters and pollution further endanger their lifestyle.
Support for the Haenyeo
Various individuals and the Jeju government supported haenyeo over the years as their struggles and strength became known. In 2016, UNESCO granted the haenyeo an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.
The government of Jeju provided $6.5 million worth of funding for the haenyeo’s wetsuits and medical insurance in 2015. The Haenyeo Museum and Hansupul Haenyeo School in Jeju, respectively founded in 2006 and 2007, have educated the local community and tourists about haenyeo culture. Jeju residents encouraged the creation of both the museum and the school.
Korea’s first female underwater photographer, Y. Zin Kim, initiated the Happy Haenyeo Project in 2012 to dispel outdated perceptions of the haenyeo as uncouth and poor working women. “Through my project, I wanted to convey the modern haenyeo as it is to the new generation,” Kim told The Borgen Project in an interview. She explained that many young people now view haenyeo as “confident, healthy and bright because of the project.”
The haenyeo Kim spoke to expressed that they feel a sense of pride in their culture. “We are very carefully looking for ways to protect them for the modern age while preserving that culture,” Kim said. As part of her Happy Haenyeo Project, Kim is currently making a film about the haenyeo in Jeju.
What the Future Holds for Haenyeo
While the Jeju government invested significantly in maintaining haenyeo culture, both Sunoo and Kim believe that the government must do more to protect the sea that allows the culture to exist. “The government’s support for improving the marine environment, which is linked to their livelihood, is still insufficient,” Kim said. Similarly, Sunoo emphasized, “The best way to pay gratitude and respect to the haenyeo here is to protect the oceans and planet earth.”
Sunoo stated that the government built a military base that disrupts a sacred haenyeo fishing site and officials are discussing building a second airport. This would result in more polluted water, a decrease in the area’s sea life and therefore a severe impact on haenyeo profits.
The divers of South Korea lead by example in sustainable practices while also serving as role models for women worldwide. They lifted themselves and their families out of poverty, giving their daughters greater options for their future. If the Jeju government extends support for the haenyeo to include protecting the source of their income, it is likely the haenyeo’s legacy will continue for years to come.
– Safira Schiowitz