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They went and did it! 500-year-old primeval forest at Mount Gariwang unlawfully destroyed for 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

By Rebecca Kim - Researcher at the Democracy & Social Movement Institute, SungkongHoe University, Seoul

Pyeongchang2018 has completed the destruction of the primeval forest which has stood on Mount Gariwang for hundreds of years to make way for the Alpine Downhill ski event which will last for all of three days.

Destruction at Mount GariwangDestruction at Mount Gariwang This act and its unbelievable criminality have gone almost entirely unreported and unremarked in the world’s media. It is a measure of the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the various organisations involved, the International Olympic Committee, the International Ski Federation, POCOG (Pyeonghang2018 Organising Committee), the South Korean Government and its provincial authorities, that all have protested their concern for the environment even as they have trashed this ecological jewel. Just after it had begun its destruction of this forest the South Korean government hosted the XII Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP12) and Peyongchang, Gangwon Province, was the venue for the Convention. The participant Parties were to bring forward national action plans to achieve the ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’ by 2020, which are designed to tackle the causes of biodiversity loss and improve biodiversity status by safeguarding natural habitats and ecosystems. Ridiculously, the participants then adopted the ‘Gangwon Declaration on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development’ just as this vital biodiverse ecosystem was being cut down on their very doorstep!

It was left to the visiting delegations from Friends of the Earth International and the Global Forest Coalition to issue strongly worded statements condemning the actions of the South Korean government and the Olympic authorities, denunciations which were, of course, ignored by those organisations. The GFC said

“the planned ski course would cause major damage to a site of both ecological and cultural importance, as it is one of the oldest sacred forests in South Korea. The forests on Mount Gariwang are not ‘restorable’ to their original state because they are composed of an intrinsically balanced mixture of tens of different temperate broad leaf and coniferous tree species.”

And FoEI said

“The situation at Mount Gariwang reminds us of similar situations in other countries who accept to organize big sports events. There is already existing infrastructure in the region that can be used for the Olympic Games, and it is both ecologically and economically damaging to build a new ski slope to be used for three days only. The Olympic Games should promote the protection of nature, not devastate it.”

Ha-Bong before destruction (Photo Green Korea United)Ha-Bong before destruction (Photo Green Korea United)

In point of fact there is nothing surprising about these events. In 1995 the International Olympic Committee declared the environment to be the Third Dimension of Olympism. However, ever since at Nagano (1998), Salt Lake City (2002), Turin (2006),Vancouver (2010) and Sochi (2014) the Winter Olympics has continued to wreak varying degrees of environmental damage. The last two Games have been no exception. The re-routing of the Vancouver–Whistler Sea-to-Sky Highway at the allegedly green Vancouver Olympics led to the construction of a four lane highway through what British Columbia’s own environmental survey described as the “most significant area for plant diversity" along the entire Sea-to-Sky Highway at Eagleridge Bluffs, where biologists identified 22 "regionally rare or significant plants." The recent Sochi Olympics resulted in some of the worst damage yet. Biologist Aleksei Yablokov, who has been at the forefront of the environmental movement in Russia since the 1980s, described the devastation:

"The preparation for the Olympics can only be called intolerable barbarism," he said. "Wetlands of international importance have been destroyed in the Imeretinskaya Lowland. The territory of the Caucasus State Reserve, which was thought to be untouchable, has been damaged. The Mzymta River has been ravaged. And this is just a small part of what is going on there."

Now it’s the turn of South Korea, which is hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Despite having the opportunity to use an alternative site the Olympic and South Korean authorities chose to smash their way through what is probably the most important forest on the Korean Peninsula. The Olympic authorities have made much of the fact that they changed the construction plan and chose not to destroy the right hand side of the mountain site by not building the Women’s Course there. However, it turned out even this alteration was made because of the cost of construction and not, as they claimed, because Gangwon Province and the FIS ‘considered’ the negative impact on the environment. Top of Ha-Bong (Photo Green Korea United)Top of Ha-Bong (Photo Green Korea United)

After an initial felling in August, which was stopped after protests by environmental groups, the Gangwon provincial government pushed ahead in September with a massive, unlawful felling at the Ha-bong (‘bong’ means a mountain top) slope construction site on Mount Gariwang. The Games are being held in Gangwon Province some 150kms east of Seoul. When I arrived at the site on 27th September with a group of Korean environmental activists I witnessed the full extent of the criminality committed on the sacred Gariwang mountain. A huge area on the top of Ha-bong had been shaved and large trees with a trunk diameter of over 1 metre had been cut down and moved away.

A team of activists had found that on the upper part of Ha-bong there were 247 big and old trees in total, including 150 Quercus mongolica (Mongolian Oak), 37 Kalopanax septemlobus (Prickly Castor Oil Tree), 14 Betula ermani var. ganjuensis (Ganjuan Birch), 12 Abies holophylla (Manchurian Fir). Experts say that it takes 70 years for the Quercus mongolica to grow as big as 45cm at chest height, for the Kalopanax septemlobus it takes 90 years, and for the Betula ermani var. ganjuensis, also known as the Wangsasre, a hybrid birch unique to Korea, it takes 60 years at least. According to the 'Naturality' scale established by the South Korean Ministry of Environment, a forest with trees aged more than 20~50 year-old trees is categorised as "virgin forest" and scaled 'degree 8', while a forest with trees aged over 50 year-old trees is considered to be a "climax forest" and scaled 'degree 9'. All forests from degree 8~10 are supposed to be strictly protected from any kind of development activities. This giant oak (Quercus mongolica) on Mt. Kariwang-san is probably one of the oldest of the species in the countryThis giant oak (Quercus mongolica) on Mt. Kariwang-san is probably one of the oldest of the species in the country

Right after the massive felling, which began on 17th September, a team including staff from the Wonju Office of the Ministry of Environment and POCOG along with representatives from environmental groups, the Good Friends of Nature-Korea and Green Korea United, visited the site, as ordered in the 'EIA', to check that the contractor was carrying out the promised 'transplantation'. This transplantation had been promised by the government as part of its programme of restoration to overcome the opposition of environmental groups to the desecration of Mount Gariwang. Some environmentalists, notably the Good Friends of Nature, had remained unconvinced by the idea that the forest could be restored and continued to oppose the project and in the run up to the felling a coalition of environmental groups had protested at the inadequacy of the transplantation programme and called for the downhill event to be moved and Mount Gariwang to be spared the devastation they feared would befall it.

What the civil society representatives found was completely outrageous and exceeded their worst expectations. The Wonju District Office of the Ministry of the Environment had issued ‘Recommendations Co-discussed with Gangwon Provincial Government’ in August which stated: “prior to the felling work, there must be: a panel of experts by discipline area; a completion of re-evaluation and marking of the trees to be transplanted; an advanced transplantation of the shrubbery and herbaceous flowers; an accompaniment by vegetation experts while the felling takes place”. However, the promised ‘transplantation’ was not being put into practice and there was not a single ‘expert’ on site to oversee the work as stipulated by the Ministry of Environment.

In reality this ‘transplantation’ plan never amounted to anything. Even when it was first devised it covered only 121 (2.2%) out of 5,315 big trees with a height of over 8m. The government claims the total number of the trees to be felled is about 50,000, civil organisations say it is over 120,000. However, with time even that original very limited transplantation plan had shrunk and Gangwon Province now refuses outright to transplant any trees with a height of over 5m. In other words, they choose not to ‘transplant’ what must be transplanted and restored but only what can easily be moved. The contractor did not even have the list of the rare endemic plants, 11species including Allium microdictyon, Viola diamantica, Cacalia firma Koma, Disporum ovale Ohwi, Iris odaesanensis, Paeonia obovata Maxim, which were to be transplanted. The activists found numerous rare endemic plants crushed and rotting on the ground. The transplanting that had been done was skimpy and shoddy, the bare minimum, as Dr Lee of the Good Friends of Nature put it, 'to save the contractor's butt'. The contractor is refusing to transplant 'all the 11 species on the site', as stipulated in the EIA, but only those 'in their work area'. Grandma Ash (photo by Nam, Joonki)Grandma Ash (photo by Nam, Joonki)

Instead of insisting that the EIA be implemented by the contractor POCOG, the Pyeongchang organising committee, made excuses saying that as the transplanting process is very tricky, because they also have to move the soil along with the plants to a temporary artificial habitat near to the felling zone before then transplanting the plants to a ‘similar environment’ on the sides of the slope and later, after the Games, to a site at the bottom of the lift area, they had to 'volume down' the amount of plants to be transplanted. However, not only had they reduced the volume of plants but the work they had done was of a very poor standard. In addition, a large number of trees including rare Quercus mongolica and Abies nephrolepis (Khingan Fir), the latter species was to be transplanted, were found just felled and moved away. Among the most precious trees to be destroyed was one affectionately known as ‘Grandma Mountain God Ash Tree’ which was reckoned to be two hundred and twenty years old and the largest of its kind in Korea. what's left of Grandma Ash (photo by Nam, Joonki)what's left of Grandma Ash (photo by Nam, Joonki)

About Mount Gariwang

Mount Gariwang, which has been described as an ‘Ecological Ark of Ancient Forest’, is not just important for its flora and fauna. It is one of the most important mountain areas on the Korean peninsula, historically, culturally and ecologically. On the National Forest marking stone at the top of the mountain there is a legend that the name of Gariwang is a modification of 'Gal Wang'. The legend says that King Gal took refuge in a temple on the mountain, 'Seoshimtoe’, now in ruins. King Gal was believed to be either a King from ancient China or a king from the old tribal kingdom 'Maek guk'. The 'Maek' inhabited the central and northern parts of the Korean Peninsula and southern Manchuria and a branch of this tribe created the Korean Kingdom of Goguryeo (BC 37-668) in that region, the largest of the 'Three Kingdoms' of Korea (from 1st Century BC to 7th Century AD). The mountain was called 'Gal Wang san’ (Gal King mountain) and the sound was slowly changed to today's 'Gariwang san'.

Later the mountain became associated with the Chosun dynasty


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Environmental groups stop Pyeongchang2018 cutting down forest at Mount Gariwang

The giant "Wangsasure," the signature wood species in Mt. Kariwang-sanThe giant "Wangsasure," the signature wood species in Mt. Kariwang-san

The argument over the Pyeongchang2018 downhill course at Mount Gariwang continues. Recently green activists noticed that the authorities were starting to cut down trees on the mountain. The coalition of South Korean environment groups arguing with the government over the so-called restoration programme immediately protested pointing out that no agreement had yet been reached over this restoration programme. No work on the mountain is allowed to begin until this programme is agreed and the environmental coalition has so far rejected the Government's proposals for restoring the forest after the Olympics. The Department of the Environment then intervened to stop the work.

In a petition launched on Avaaz calling on the International Olympic Committee and the South Korean Government to prevent the destruction of the forest Mount Gariwang is described as:

The site of the largest plantation of wangsasre trees, a hybrid Aspen-Birch, which is only found on the Korean Peninsula. It is also the home of rare yew trees and possibly the oldest oak in South Korea. Conservationists describe Mount Gariwang as a 'Super-A' class site. Historically Gariwang mountain has a very special meaning for the Korean people. For five centuries from the late 14th century during the Chosun dynasty the mountain was under state protection during which time it was a ‘royal, forbidden mountain’.


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