The Moral Equivalent of War: Joining with our Chinese Neighbors to Stop the Spread of Deserts in Northeast Asia

By Ambassador Kwon Byung Hyun
former South Korean ambassador to China
Founder & President Future Forest

The Green Wall of China: an attempt to slow Gobi desert encroachment, China

It seems as if we are constantly preparing to fight the last war and completely unprepared for new challenges. But one needs only travel to the edge of the Kubuchi Desert in Inner Mongolia to see that mankind faces threats on an unprecedented scale that call our for our united action. We must use the full extent of our imagination to come up with solutions to this crisis through new global alliances that require us to completely rethink terms like “security” as we create a new civilization that can lead humans from the dark night of endless consumption to a hopeful future.

My engagement in the long-term effort to stop the spread of deserts in China started from a very distinct personal experience. When I arrived in Beijing in 1998 to serve as ambassador to China, I was greeted by the yellow dust storms. The gales that brought in the sand and dust were very powerful and it was no small shock to see Beijing’s skies preternaturally darkened. I received a phone call from my daughter the next day and she told that the Seoul sky had been covered by the same sandstorm that had blown over from China. I realized that she was talking about same storm I had just witnessed. That phone call awakened me to the crisis. I saw for the first time that we all confronted a common problem that transcends national boundaries. I saw clearly that the problem of the yellow dust I saw in Beijing was my problem, and my family’s problem. It was not just a problem for the Chinese to solve.

When I had established myself at the Beijing Embassy, I asked my staff to conduct a survey about the origins and implications of the yellow dust, and how it arose from the rapid desertification of land in China. They came back to me with a report that explained that the problem was ongoing, already quite serious and worsening rapidly. Here was a threat that I had not even imagined before and it was rapidly becoming as great a challenge as any we face. The threat was increasing and it impacted both China and Korea. As the deserts move from West to East, we can expect the situation to grow even graver in the years to come.

I learned from that report my staff gave me that the amount of desert in China was increasing at a rate of 2400 square kilometers a year and that nothing had yet been successful in slowing down that alarming rate of environmental transformation. I was alarmed. I felt we needed to do something, and to do something together with China. So I proposed to our Chinese counterparts that we should start some collaboration between China and Korea to combat desertification by planting trees. The initial response I received was lukewarm. The Chinese I spoke with explained to me that deserts are a regional problem, and a minor issue among the challenges facing China. They felt that China already has too many problems to address just to support its own people and assure their basic welfare. So desertification was not so urgent a matter. The sort of an issue, they felt, that one can worry about after one’s economic power is established.

Making the Desert Visible

Many of the Koreans I spoke with also did not see how this desertification problem had anything to do with them. From the Korean perspective China’s deserts were China’s problem. But I had made up my mind that the spread of deserts in Northeast Asia was the issue of our age and I promised that I would bring the resources, and the know-how, from Korea needed to address desertification.

President Kim Dae Jung visited China in November of 1998 and I proposed to him that we should include the combating of desertification as one issue for the “common agenda” of Korea-China cooperation to be discussed. President Kim agreed and we started in earnest a dialog on the desertification between Korea and China for the very first time. For my part, I made the rounds on the Korean side to persuade stakeholders of the importance of the issue of desertification not only as an opportunity for overseas volunteer work, but also as a critical topic for Korea itself. One of the first breakthroughs we had was persuading KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency) to provide funding for combating desertification in China. But persuading both the Koreans and the Chinese of the importance of the issue, and the need to work together, was a long process. Although the environment links China and Korea together closely, and we share an ecological continuum, both sides tend to think that responsibility ends at the political border. There were many Koreans who responded to our approach by saying that the Chinese are rich enough to pay for everything themselves now. We had to explain to them that this issue was not just about China and this was not a simple foreign aid project.

The challenges were daunting at the time. To start with, there was no clear funding mechanism to support a response to the spread of deserts on a global scale. We had to persuade the Chinese of the seriousness of this issue first and to encourage a more international perspective on the significance of deserts and the importance of a global response to the threat within China, and globally. Although the dangers of the spread of deserts were obvious to us, they were not obvious to anyone else. All in all, it took two years to persuade the stakeholders that this topic was critical.

When I started planting trees back in 1999, when serving as ambassador to China, I made frequent trips to arid regions of China and saw the situation on the ground. I approached the Korean community in China, and Koreans at home, to help in this project. I wanted them to come with me to see the deserts firsthand. But many Chinese reporters and Chinese friends asked me, “Why do you want to plant trees there?” They could not understand why an ambassador would travel to rural China when he should be meeting with important people in Beijing. The seriousness of the situation did not seem to be common knowledge.

When I started to lobby for this issue in both China and Korea, I managed to meet with Premier Zhu Rongji in 2000. I recommended to Zhu Rongji that he pay attention to environmental issues as part of economic development strategy. I drew attention to the need for a balanced development that takes into account economic and environmental issues. Premier Zhu is a thoughtful man and I think he listened with great care to what I said. I personally think that we can see meaningful change in Chinese policy on the environment since that time, much of that change, including the turn to wind power and sustainable development, was very much influenced by Zhu Rongji. So I am encouraged what has happened and I think real change is possible.

I like to think of China as the “lurching giant” of the world economy, going alternating between different approaches to the economy and making rapid changes in policy with global impact. China is the key to the environment for all of us globally. We cannot dismiss these issues as local problems for China. We are all impacted. We all have a moral responsibility to work with China to find solutions.

Desertification is seriously neglected by most everyone in the world. Most people would not include it in the top hundred threats if asked to make a list. I often felt as if I was speaking to deaf ears as I made my rounds. At the same time I had to encourage those who were engaged in the battle to stop the spread of deserts, working with people at the local, national and international level. The spread of deserts in Northeastern China is no ordinary problem. It is an overwhelming crisis that threatens to discourage even those who are deeply engaged in looking for a solution. So many times we have seen those who are working the hardest are the very ones who despair of making an impact. We must bring a sense of hope to those who are already committed and a sense of crisis to those who have not grasped the enormity of the problem.

As soon as I returned to Seoul in August of 2000 I started making the rounds in government and business circles. I asked my friends and associates, explaining in detail how important this project was for Korea. And among a group of opinion leaders, I received strong backing. At the first stage, we received support from the Korea Federation of Industry, the Chamber of Commerce, KITA (Korea International Trade Association) and Mr. Park Sung-Hyung, Chairman of the Kumho Group. We organized the first Green Corps in the Spring of 2002 and sent one hundred Korean university students, together with fifty Koreans from supporting groups, to areas severely impacted by desertification in China. We spent most of our time visiting arid regions of Shanxi Province so our students could see the source of the sandstorms in Korea.

Future Forest and The Great Green Wall

I founded Future Forest in 2001 as an NGO focused on combating desertification through close cooperation with China. Future Forest annually dispatches its Green Corps volunteers, a group of more than 100 young students, to Northwest China to plant trees in arid regions in danger of desertification.

We focused our work on the Kubuchi Desert. The Kubuqi Desert, one of seven great deserts in China, has expanded to 450 kilometers west of Beijing and, as the desert closest to Korea, is one of the sources of yellow dust that has caused environmental damage in Korea. The Kubuqi Desert continues to expand eastwards and stopping this process of desertification is absolutely critical to the future of Northeast Asia and as the eastern frontier of the Kubuqi Desert is strategically the lynchpin of any attempt to stop desertification, this effort takes on special significance.  

Our greatest achievement was the building of a strip of trees to stop the spread of the desert known as the Great Green Wall. The Great Green Wall has revolutionized land management in the moving-dune desert region by introducing a unique sustainable planting that fixes permanently the moving sands and providing the know-how for sustainable farming at the local level so as to stop the spread of the desert through an alliance of local people, local government, Korean and Chinese NGOs, Korean and Chinese government agencies, Korean businesses and Korean local governments. For the first time, both those affected by desertification in Korea through DSS and those at the local level engaged in farming are brought together to work on the project that is so critical for both. This cooperation between those who are subject to the results of unsustainable land management and farming and the affected residents and farmers themselves offers tremendous promise as a model for global cooperation involving multiple sectors and stakeholders.

GGW runs 16 kilometers, North-South. It consists of trees and criss-cross strips of organic material for sand fixation. GGW was launched as a five-year plan ending in 2011. So far GGW has planted about 5.2 million trees and about 1,800 hectares of moving sand dunes has been fixed and reforested. GGW serves as a critical buffer abutting the moving dunes of the desert that are currently entirely barren.

The “Great Green Wall(GGW)” is run by Future Forest, the All-China Youth Federation (ACYF), and the Dalateqi Local Government (DLG) of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. These three entities forged an international partnership involving local, national and global stakeholders to construct the “Great Green Wall” and to build the “Save the Earth Eco-Village” in the Kubuqi Desert, Dalateqi, Inner Mongolia as part of a larger effort to combat desertification and reduce the frequency of dust and sand storms (DSS), thereby mitigating their impact on adjacent regions, including Korea.

This collaborative partnership is a unique innovation in that it spans sectors as an alliance of NGOs, local governments, government agencies and businesses in both Korea and China. It also embraces local peoples, youth volunteers and the UNCCD in raising awareness of sustainable land management at the local, national and international levels, and strives to give hope to directly affected local people.

When the project was first launched, there was deep pessimism about the prospects for stopping the eastward creep of the moving sands in Dalateqi. Most experts and local residents assumed that tree-plantings or sand fixation techniques would not be sufficient to halt the sands. The project has achieved remarkable success over the last few years, however, demonstrating that the local ecosystem can be revitalized and that substantial international cooperation with real impact at the local level is possible. The project is unique in that young people play a central role.

The Great Green Wall is of ultimate significance because of its impact on Chinese perceptions and resulting changes in policy. Since China is the “lurching giant” in the global ecosystem, we must encourage the most populous country with second largest deserts, to perceive desertification as a phenomenon that is both a vital threat and at the same time one that can be stopped through policy and action. Through the ACTF, we have worked to have impact at social, political and policy levels in China. Our project is relatively small in scale, but serves as a critical example of how both concrete solutions and a sense of hope can be conveyed to both stakeholders and policy makers and local residents in China. By demonstrating that the spread of deserts can be stopped by concerted efforts, the Great Green Wall has a profound symbolic meaning. Consequently, the Great Green Wall was presented as a best practice for combating desertification at UNCCD COP 10.

The Importance of Youth

I proposed more involved collaboration to the Beijing Youth league, stressing that we need the youth of China and Korea to work together in addressing this crisis so that we will produce future leaders who know each other from their work together on desertification. Such relations from a young age will build a link between the two nations at a far deeper level.

As I like to say, “It takes ten years raise to grow trees and one hundred years to develop a new culture for people.” We are doing both together through our Green Corps and our Great Green Wall. This next generation of leaders will see the environment as the essential issue of our age and they will see international collaboration as the key.  At the start of the Green Corps and the Great Green Wall, almost everyone thought that the effort would be just one time thing and not last.

The task of keeping people working together is difficult, especially when there are physically separated and work in different organizations.  Many friends called me aside and told me that such an approach would fail because of the lack of support in civil society for this effort. But we were lucky, and we found some who had the imagination to understand what we were trying to do.

For the first several years we focused our work on raising awareness of the seriousness of desertification. That alone was a challenge. For many, desertification is a rather remote agenda, but in fact it impacts everyone in the community and in the region. It is one issue that transcends national boundaries and impacts everyone. In 2006 I proposed to the All China Youth Federation and the Chinese Communist Youth League that we could start the “Great Green Wall” at the Eastern edge of the Kubuchi Desert. The goal was clear and the approach in a technical and administrative sense was clear. We started our Great Green Wall then, to raise awareness of the spread of deserts, to ring an alarm bell for all stake-holders.

 

Our Responsibility

The reality of desertification is quite difficult for many to grasp, and we must be patient. At the same time, we need to focus in on a very specific problem and one that we can solve. We worked hard to move beyond our own personal limitations, and also to overcome prevalent defeatism we encountered among the Chinese working on the front line. The process is a delicate dance. We must both inspire optimism so we can move forward and rally our troops but we must also raise awareness about the seriousness of this issue.

“We are responsible,” I tell everyone I met, “and we can make a difference. The problem is not about any one person, but every single person can make a real contribution.” Whether working with leaders in the business community or high school students, we demonstrate that the problem of desertification is directly related to us here and now. But we do not stop there. We demonstrate how local people can build ecovillages and have a direct impact on the environment. There is hope if we engage at the local level. But we cannot leave responsibility for deserts to China. They are the world’s problem.

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3 Responses to The Moral Equivalent of War: Joining with our Chinese Neighbors to Stop the Spread of Deserts in Northeast Asia

  1. [...] “The Moral Equivalent of War: Joining with our Chinese Neighbors to Stop the Spread of Deserts… [...]

  2. […] стран. Так, к примеру, бывший посол Южной Кореи в Китае, Бионг Хен Квон, впервые столкнувшись с «желтым драконом» — […]

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