Ac­tivist turning Chi­nese desert into for­est

The Korea Times - - PEOPLE - By Kim Hyo-jin hy­o­

West­erly winds car­ry­ing yel­low dust from China are one of South Kore­ans’ main en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns in spring.

While most are un­sure what can be done, a few peo­ple have al­ready been out in Chi­nese deserts rais­ing trees to com­bat de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Kwon Hyuk-dae, di­rec­tor of the Chi­nese head­quar­ters of non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion Future For­est, has been en­gaged in a tree-plant­ing project in the Kubuqi Desert in China’s In­ner Mon­go­lia since 2006.

Future For­est has planted about 8 mil­lion trees on 29 mil­lion square me­ters of land, 10 times the size of Yeouido, over the past decade.

Doubts on the fea­si­bil­ity of foresta­tion have given way to con­fi­dence while wit­ness­ing vis­i­ble changes, Kwon said.

“I saw it ac­tu­ally worked. The land of sands be­gan to grow green and bring an­i­mals. Now I do my job with con­fi­dence,” Kwon told The Korea Times, Tues­day.

He is a son of Kwon By­oung-hyon, who played a key role in es­tab­lish­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries through be­hind-the-scenes ne­go­ti­a­tions in 1992, and later be­came the fourth South Korean am­bas­sador to China.

The for­mer am­bas­sador set up Future For­est in 2001 with the aim of boost­ing ex­changes be­tween young peo­ple in Korea and China.

“For his en­tire life, my fa­ther be­lieved Korea should nur­ture tight re­la­tions with China so he fo­cused on ex­changes be­tween young gen­er­a­tions. And the ideal mis­sion to tackle to­gether was the en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue as it is their big­gest chal­lenge in the future,” Kwon said. “De­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion was al­ready a hot-but­ton is­sue back then.”

Future For­est started the Bil­lion Trees in Desert project in 2006 in the Kubuqi Desert with China’s Com­mu­nist Youth League and the In­ner Mon­go­lian local gov­ern­ment.

The younger Kwon, a for­mer busi­ness con­sul­tant based in Beijing, joined the or­ga­ni­za­tion at the on­set of the project, and has led on-site op­er­a­tions.

Plant­ing a for­est in Kubuqi, the sev­enth-largest desert in China and the clos­est to Beijing and South Korea, has fur­ther sym­bolic mean­ing, Kwon said.

“It is the east end of the global desert belt. It is con­nected to cen­tral Asia and Africa if stretched to the west. We are tack­ling de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion start­ing here but the move­ment can be stretched to Africa.”

Kwon is not too con­cerned about the cur­rent row be­tween Korea and China caused by the de­ploy­ment of a U.S. anti-mis­sile sys­tem on the penin­sula. He says hav­ing an “ad­just­ment pe­riod” could be ben­e­fi­cial for both coun­tries as their re­la­tions have been overly heated since the start of diplo­matic re­la­tions.

Such a view may be based on his con­fi­dence as he ex­pe­ri­enced that any so­cial tur­bu­lence can be over­come with mu­tual trust and long-term re­la­tions.

“We went into China in 2003 when SARS was preva­lent while all other NGOs sus­pended their ac­tiv­i­ties. Later, Chi­nese coun­ter­parts came to Korea when the whole coun­try was in tur­moil due to MERS. They fol­lowed a full sched­ule with an am­bu­lance on standby,” Kwon said.

His or­ga­ni­za­tion avoided the im­pact of the THAAD re­tal­i­a­tion, un­like oth­ers which had to tem­po­rar­ily stop bi­lat­eral ex­change projects.

The civic ac­tivist plans to ex­pand the foresta­tion project af­ter com­plet­ing the Kubuqi one. He helped plant 16 kilo­me­ters of trees from north to south along the road cross­ing the desert by 2010 which has widened along the line since then.

“I will carry on the anti-de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion move be­yond China. The fact that it is a crit­i­cal mat­ter for the next gen­er­a­tion keeps me go­ing,” he said.

Cour­tesy of Kwon Hyuk-dae

Kwon Hyuk-dae, the di­rec­tor of the Chi­nese head­quar­ters of Future For­est, poses in front of sweet potato plants grow­ing in the Kubuqi Desert in China in June.

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