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(Yonhap Feature) With S. Korean carbon market on horizon, reforestation project kicks off in border village
By Kim Hyun
Contributing writer
GOSEONG, South Korea, Nov. 22 (Yonhap) - With waves of colorful autumn hills, tall and shiny Mongolian oaks and neatly tended vegetable farms, this remote village of border county Goseong, Gangwon Province, is emblematic of bucolic charm, but it has an eerie edge. Military trucks occasionally pass by and a bankrupt ski resort stands idle along with closed rental shops and restaurants.

   So it adds another twist to the rural atmosphere that Korea's first-ever forest-based climate change project kicked off in this village, named Heul-ri, in October. There lies an abandoned cattle farm, now full of shrubs and weeds, which will be transformed into a forest that generates income for residents and carbon credits for industry, according to the so-called "afforestation and reforestation clean development mechanism" (A/R CDM) jointly operated by SK Forest Co., a Hwaseong-based major forestry company, and the state-run administrator Korea Forest Service.

Once a grazing pasture, this swath of woodland in Heul-ri is now filled with bushes. (Photos courtesy of Kim Hyun)

"There was nothing good after the cattle farm came," said Jeong Hyeong-seop, 53, a farmer who has lived in Heul-ri since he was two years old. The village farmers were yet to be informed of the budding project, but he remembered the natural woodland before it turned into a grazing pasture that was soon left unattended. "It'd be better to plant trees there than leave as it is now."

   The reforestation project commenced a month before a landmark climate change law took effect in Asia's fourth-largest economy as its latest green growth initiative. The Act on Allocation and Trading of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, effective as of Nov. 15, mandates cuts in gas emissions starting in 2015 and subsequently will create an official market for credits for carbon emissions at the national level. Carbon credits produced in clean development mechanisms, like the one in Heul-ri, can become money.

   With no precedent A/R CDM case yet in Korea and the gloomy outlook of carbon trading markets around the world, the project operators put an emphasis on its research potentials rather than on commercial values. If successful, the case in Heul-ri may serve as a springboard for making inroads into reforestation in North Korea, as its geographical proximity means similar vegetation.

   "This project is more of a symbolic one," said Kwon Min-soo, manager of SK Forest's business team that will implement and finance the 75-ha project over the next 60 years with government support. "Our financial team was against it, because there's little or no business prospect in itself."

   The woodland bears testimony to a few short-lived development projects carried out in the border area. It was leased to a nut producer called Dongwon Nongsan in the early 1970s, which developed it into a pasture for grazing its cattle. The development prompted farmers who had been cultivating some of the woodland to leave the village, and the livestock waste affected the underground water people drank. For some reason, the cattle farm didn't last long for more than a few years, and three decades later the land was finally retrieved by the government.

   The project operators chose this area for their clean development project because Goseong is considered one of the poorest counties in Gangwon Province, mainly due to its location. A large swath of the county is tied to the demilitarized zone bisecting the South and the North, effectively blocking any possibility of large-scale development.

The ski resort, now out of business, is a desolate reminder of short-lived development boom in Heul-ri.

Investment booms were not around for long. The Alps Ski Resort, which opened in 1976 in Heul-ri as the nation's second such facility, went bankrupt in 2006 as other resorts sprang up in more accessible towns.

   Political confrontation with North Korea that has spiked since conservative President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008 killed the tourism and accommodation industry in Goseong, a passageway into North Korea, as Pyongyang suspended Mount Kumgang tourism for South Koreans. Rising temperatures in the East Sea worsened local livelihoods living off squid and walleye pollack fishing.

   The plan for reforestation development in Heul-ri is to plant indigenous larches, Mongolian oaks and nut pines on the pasture land so that jobs are created for the village during planting season and also when their nuts and liquid extracts are harvested. For the project operators, the reforestation will produce carbon credits they can sell in the emissions market. If successful, and on condition that the now frozen inter-Korean ties thaw, the project will open the door for rehabilitating degraded forests in the North.

   "As the planned reforestation site is close to North Korea, our hopes are that it could be a beneficial factor to restoring degraded North Korean forests in the future," said Kim Yong-ha, director general of the forest resources bureau of the Korea Forest Service.
According to a 2011 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, North Korean forest cover significantly decreased to 47 percent of the total land area, or 5.66 million hectares, in 2010 from 68 percent in 1990 as logging and land clearing were rampant in search of firewood and farmlands. Some 127,000 ha of forests disappeared every year over the past 20 years, the report indicated.

   Project operators are putting final touches on the request to register with the governing body of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international environment treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which oversees the U.N.-led carbon market CDM. With a U.N. registration, carbon credits from the Huel-ri project can be traded in the prospective carbon market in South Korea.

   "The CDMs recognized by the U.N. will be accepted as carbon credits in the Korean market," said Seo Jin-hee, a director on climate change projects in the Presidential Committee on Green Growth, which spearheads the creation and implementation of the new emissions law. "Not every carbon projects can be accepted because some credits are created in too easy and simple a manner and there is the matter of value equivalence."

Jeong Hyeong-seop, who tends some 66,000 square meters of farmland in and around Heul-ri including this lettuce farm, hopes to see natural vegetation restored in the abandoned pasture.

South Korea, the world's ninth largest polluter, has been introducing a series of global green growth initiatives in the context of climate change. On Oct. 20, Korea became the host of the U.N. Green Climate Fund, which will manage billions of dollars to help developing countries mitigate climate change, and in September transformed the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute into an organization dedicated to low-carbon sustainable development especially in developing countries.

   Under the new emissions act, South Korea aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent of business-as-usual projections by 2020. In the first three-year pilot phase, emissions allowances will be doled out to businesses 100 percent free, but the free allocation will decrease to 97 percent in the second phase and later on to even lower levels.

   According to the latest data from the International Energy Agency, South Korea emitted 515.5 million tons of carbon in fuel combustions in 2009, which accounted for 1.8 percent of the global total. The combined emissions by China and the U.S., which have yet to mandate emission reduction at the national level, account for more than 40 percent.

   With the reforestation project taking root as the village's latest development agenda, Jeong, the farmer, doesn't have much hope for what it would bring into his pockets or how the job creation would help. His lettuce farm remains unharvested because the vegetable's price is lower than the pay for a hired hand.

   "I don't know if it could help the village in any way, but it'd be good to see indigenous trees grow there again," he said.