Plant Hope for Humankind in Mongolia's Gobi Desert

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Plant Hope for Humankind in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert
Minister of Korea Forest Service Choi Byeong-am (Korea Forest Service)Ecological economist Lester R. Brown in his book “Plan B 3.0” suggested six grand strategies for overcoming the global climate and ecological crises, one of which is to restore lost forests around the world.

Forests originally covered around 60 to 70 percent of land (13 billion hectares). However, the proportion of forests has been reduced to around 30 percent (3.9 billion hectares) due to the desertification, deforestation, conversion of forest, and expansion of agricultural and pasture land due to population growth. Forests have been facing the risk of being cut down and degraded.

Forests currently absorb around 16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Therefore, we can additionally absorb more than 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide and produce 20 billion tons of oxygen per year by increasing the size of forests by 50 percent. The humid climate created in forested territory leads to increasing land productivity and expanding habitable land, and enables us to preserve the tremendous variety of living species.

However, wouldn’t it be surprising if the Republic of Korea can make this grand plan a reality? Dr. Brown already highlighted the Korea’s history of success in forestation over the past 30 to 40 years as an actual case of implementing the strategy. And our country’s success story has already set an example for countries suffering tropical forest losses, desertification and arid progress.

There are efforts at the international level. The United Nations Environmental Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization have recently established and implemented a 10-year plan from 2021 to 2030 for restoring the global ecosystem. And the UN has set a goal to plant 1 trillion trees, urging all countries to join. The necessity and urgency of restoring the world’s forests to overcome the climate and ecological crises are increasing, And therefore, the role of Korea, which holds the key, is more in demand than ever.

Korea has engaged in the world’s forest restoration from early stages, taking a further step from its own success in reforestation. The Korea Forest Service achieved more than 8,000 hectares of afforestation in the Kubuqi Desert, China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, after painstaking efforts in preventing desertification. The project notably kicked off on the occasion of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Seoul and Beijing in the mid-1990s and was implemented with the funding from Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). The success of Kubuqi Desert afforestation opened the door for a large-scale afforestation project in China, the country most affected by yellow dust. However, China has now become the country achieving the world’s largest-scale afforestation in desert regions.

Mongolia‘s anti-desertification and afforestation project began in the mid-2000s. In 2005, the Korean and Mongolian government planned to establish a 200,000-hectare greenbelt with a total length of about 3,500 km. The first phase of the project was implemented for 10 years from 2007 to 2016. As a result, a total of 3,046 hectares of afforestation was completed in desert and arid regions, including 833 hectares in Lun soum, 673 hectares in Dalanzadgad, and 1,540 hectares in Bayanzag.

The second phase of the project was carried out for five years from 2017 to this year, and as a result, the construction of an urban forest covering around 40 hectares in Sukhbaatar District of the capital Ulaanbaatar was completed. Mongolia is much colder, drier, and windy as its climate conditions are different from China’s. Therefore, it is crucial to create conditions to overcome difficulties in advance. It is necessary to select tree species suitable for the local climate, secure sufficient seedlings and groundwater, and establish windbreak facilities. During my visit to the site for the afforestation project in Mongolia, I could see Poplars and Siberian elms planted in the arid land of Lun soum growing densely. The trees, which are planted in the early stage of the project and grow more than 10 meters, form a forest belt. The survival rate of Saxaul trees planted in the desert area is over 90 percent, which demonstrates the potential for reforesting the Gobi Desert.

During the visit to Mongolia, Korean and Mongolian governments confirmed the tangible achievements as well as reached a deal to implement the third phase of the anti-desertification and afforestation project and agreed to further expand and diversify it. This is a follow-up measure to the summit recently held online between the leaders of the two countries. Seoul also plans to develop this project from a bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) to a multilateral international project.

Desertification already has been underway in 73 percent of Mongolia’s territory, and forest area only accounts for 7 percent of its territory. But the achievements of the anti-desertification and afforestation project in Mongolia are a living hope for the country by showing the potential to achieve reforestation like Korea. Besides, reforestation can fundamentally resolve the problem of yellow dust in Northeast Asia stemming from the Gobi Desert, and furthermore, it is a substantial solution to the problem of humankind who are facing climate and ecological crises.

Wild sandstorms still blow in from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in our generation, but we look forward to a fragrant forest wind blowing from the desert at least in the next generation.
Choi Byeong-Am is the minister of Korea Forest Service. – Ed.

By Korea Herald (

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