Activist turning Chinese desert into forest
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.
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.