Posted : 2010-05-05 17:30
Updated : 2010-05-05 17:30

Forestation: clothing the mountains

Mt. Jiri, covered with dense forest, is shown in Hamyang, South Gyeongsang Province, in this May 3, 2006 file photo. South Korea was almost totally deforested in the 1950s, but 11 billion trees had been planted by 2008. About two-thirds of South Korea is now clothed with forest. / Korea Times

By Michael Breen

When foreign war veterans visit the battlefields in Korea where they fought North Korean and Chinese forces 60 years ago, they notice one enormous change in the terrain: trees. They're everywhere. The once bare hills of wartime Korea are now clothed in foliage.

As remarkable as it is for veterans, this stunning visual change in the Korean landscape tends to get overlooked by the analysts and authors who write about the Korean miracle, because their experience is with the city, where they focus on construction and industry.

The parts of the countryside story that do get included in the broader national narrative tend to be those with a political edge, such as the forcible removal in the 1970s of almost every thatched roof in the country by President Park Chung-hee (1961-1979), who thought corrugated iron was modern and straw was backward.

This is a pity because the transformation of the non-arable landscape in South Korea is one of the most successful examples of environmental policy in modern Asia, one that has changed the country and inspired others to follow suit.

``South Korea is in many ways a reforestation model for the rest of the world,'' Lester R. Brown, the pioneering environmentalist who founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, wrote in an InterPress Service analysis. ``Today forests cover 65 percent of the country, an area of roughly 6 million hectares.''

If you look at old photographs of the country going back to the start of diplomatic relations with Western countries in the 1880s, much of the scenery is bare. Around Seoul people were not allowed to cut trees down, so the capital was in fact ringed by trees, but the rest of the country was already relatively treeless. The culprit is also apparent in those old photographs. He's the man walking through the market with a stack of wood on his back. The reason, of course, for the thinly covered hillsides was that people cut and foraged what they could to fuel the ondol (``hot stone'') under-floor heating system in their homes.

Bad turned worse after 1910 when the Japanese took control of the peninsula and introduced industrial logging. The authorities eventually set about replacing the ravaged forest stock, but this program was interrupted by World War II. Then came the Korean War which led to almost complete destruction of the country's forests. By war's end in 1953, the peninsula was almost totally deforested.

The turnaround came in the 1960s, when South Korea made the decision to reforest the country and created the organizational and technical expertise to achieve it.

At the time, some 20 percent of forest land belonged to the central government, another 8 percent was owned by local authorities, and the remainder was privately held. Some 71 percent of forest is still private today.

Most of these private owners were smallholders who lacked the resources to buy seedlings. For this reason, until the 1970s, reforestation was mainly in government-owned forests, with the result that within a short period the density of national forests had become three times that of private forests.

But with the launch of the Saemaul Undong, a nationwide rural development movement in the early '70s, village forestry associations started to follow suit. By the end of the decade, forestry officials and village associations had planted seedlings on 1.4 million hectares.

Between 1961 and 1995, stocked forest land went up from 4 million hectares to 6.3 million hectares. Total timber rose from 30.8 million cubic meters in 1954 to over 164.4 million cubic meters in 1984. By 2008, 11 billion trees had been planted. About two-thirds of South Korea is now clothed with forest.

As one Korea Forest Research Institute researcher described it, ``The result was a seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land.''

While local forests provided farmers with domestic fuel needs, along with coal briquettes, there was by now a huge and growing industrial demand for timber that the country could not meet with domestic supply. In 1977, for example, 88 percent of timber was imported, most of it from Malaysia and Indonesia.

In what could be described as a reverse Saemaul program, whereby the lessons of the land were brought to the town, in the late 1990s, under Mayor Goh Kun, Seoul City launched an urban greening program, planting 10 million trees. His successor, Lee Myung-bak, now the president, picked up this theme and, in a landmark environmental development, uncovered and greened a stream running through downtown Seoul that had been covered up during the 1970s in the name of progress.

Now, hundreds of people visit the state-run Korea National Arboretum, which holds thousands of species of animals, plants and insects. There are 122 state-run forest parks open to visitors.

The forest has now become a source of renewable energy with a government project producing the pellet fuel that is used to heat houses. ``Forests used to be a harsh reality where we toiled to plant and drive away wood-cutters. Now the forest gives us bio-diversity, bio-energy, green life and jobs,'' Chang Byung-young of the Korea Forest Service told Reuters news agency.

Coniferous forests account for almost half the forest area with the predominant species Japanese larch, pitch pine, and Korean pine. Broad-leaved deciduous trees, such as oak, fill 28 percent of total forest area with another 27 percent covered with mixed forest. By age, 35 percent of trees were planted in the last 20 years. Only 25 percent are older than 31 years.

This lack of maturity explains why the main products from forests in Korea are non-wood products, such as chestnuts and mushrooms, which are major export items.

Korea still needs to import wood. The domestic market and industry relies on imports from Indonesia, Malaysia, the U.S., New Zealand, and Chile. These imports come in the form of raw product ― logs, lumber, plywood, and bamboo ― which are turned into plywood, hardboard, particle board, paper, and pulp. Most of these primary products are also consumed by the domestic market, and will continue to be until the forest is in better condition than at present.

Government policy is to ensure that forests are well stocked in the long term. There are, therefore, restrictions on aggressive harvesting of trees by both companies and individuals.

Planning for forestry has, since the early 70s, been organized under 10-year plans. In the typical style of the day, the first two ``10-Year Rehabilitation Projects,'' as they were called, were completed early. Since then, the government has operated under renamed National Forest Plans, the fifth of which was launched in 2008 and runs through 2017.

The stated objective is to ``manage forests sustainably as key resources and heartland for the quality of Korean people's lives, land conservation, and economic development, pursing a sustainable green welfare nation.'' Interestingly, one of the strategies is what is being termed ``Total Green Stock System,'' which involves maintaining urban forests and the creation of a green network linking urban and suburban forests.

There is, of course, more to the forest than timber. Korea's model reforestation program, experts say, explain why South Korea, unlike its neighbor to the north, no longer suffer regularly from the type of floods and droughts that used to devastate its agriculture. Reforested mountains provide a form of flood control services by absorbing heavy rains, where they would once just pour into the rivers. In addition, as the new forests store water and recharge the underlying water table, South Korea does not often suffer from drought.

North Korea in Need of South Korean Help

In the early 1970s, when South Korea's ambitious reforestation program went into top gear, the authorities in rival North Korea decided to take a different approach.

Instead of reforesting, they turned the land that had been deforested through the earlier decades of the century into rice paddies.

There was logic to this choice as the mountainous country had a growing population, which it was trying to self-sufficiently feed on limited parcels of arable land. In addition to building paddies on slopes that nature had intended for trees, the authorities also, with international help, set about reclaiming parts of the coast for eventual use for crops.

But it did not take long to see that it was a disastrous decision. According to outside commentators, the hillside rice paddies in many areas were insufficiently built and their banks were swept away when the first heavy rains came. This swept the top soil away which in turn contributed to the rapid silting of rivers which then became unusable.

Of course, as the initiative came from the country's leader Kim Il-sung, a micro-manager whose personal ``on-the-spot guidance'' of instructions great and small was captured in plaques and historical markers, no one could actually point out how stupid it was and propose a change. The error stood. Like a snowball rolling downhill, it rapidly compounded with other factors, leading to appalling consequences.

The failure to forest the land led to floods which have swept away crops and villages. At the same time, with the overthrow of communism in the west and the move to capitalism in China, North Korea no longer benefited from ``friendship'' prices for fuel and food from its allies. In the mid-90s, some areas of the country went into famine. Hundreds of thousands died while their leader, Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung, dined on imported lobster and drank French wine.

The country is still not out of the woods, so to speak. Today, some six million North Koreans, of a population of around 23 million, depend on foreign aid.

South Korea is now willing to share its expertise with North Korea, but so far politics has prevented any real progress.

South Korean businesses, meanwhile, have joined with ASEAN countries to launch reforestation projects in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Vietnam, with Korean managers working with local teams to plant trees.

National Arboretum

In the mid-15th century, a king named Sejo, the second son of King Sejong, Korean's favorite monarch, identified a region of forested hills near the modern city of Pocheon, north of Seoul, as his final resting place.

The steep grassy slopes running down from his and his queen's tombs give a dramatic sense of power at rest, a fitting sentiment for Sejo who took power in a coup, and had the deposed king, who was his nephew, and several Confucian scholars, killed.

Sejo's choice of the area, Gwangneung Forest, ensured that the area has been protected. For five centuries now, it has been strictly managed to minimize human disturbance with the result that the rolling greenery remains wonderfully intact, with half of its 2,000 hectares now under the management of Korea's National Arboretum.

This facility, which belongs to the Korea Forest Research Institute, was established in 1987 and has been open to the public since then.

Although an arboretum is generally considered a tree zoo, this one falls under a broader definition. It is both a botanical garden where trees, shrubs, and plants are cultivated for research, conservation and bio-diversity, as well as a place used for public educational purposes.

It houses 3,344 species, and includes almost all species to be found in Korea.

In addition, the arboretum has a 100-hectare zoo housing forest wildlife. Here, you can find Siberian tigers and black bears, which once freely roamed the area, as well as eagles and other endangered species. There is also a fascinating Forest Museum, which tells of forestry around the world and includes fossils, wildlife and an array of gadgets and knickknacks related to the business of forestry.
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