News / Asia

    Trees are North Korea Latest Weapons Against Hunger, Floods

    Small project that plants trees alongside crops gains favor with communist-led government

    North Korean farmers are planting fruit and nut trees on hillsides to produce food and prevent erosion.
    North Korean farmers are planting fruit and nut trees on hillsides to produce food and prevent erosion.

    Multimedia

    Audio

    Deforestation has contributed to major floods while also worsening chronic hunger problems in North Korea but now the communist-led government is supporting a small but growing effort to recover the hillsides with fruit and nut trees.

    For more than four decades after its creation in the wake of the Second World War, North Korea relied on its communist ally, the Soviet Union, to provide fertilizer for its farms. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, food production in North Korea plummeted.

    Environmental mess

    Deputy Director Marcus Noland of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics has studied North Korea since 1995. He says as food production fell, forests in mountainous areas were cleared to grow more crops.  

    "And as trees were cut down on the hillsides, that contributed to soil erosion, river silting, which exacerbated the seasonal flooding problems," says Noland. "So, the North Koreans have ended up with a real environmental mess on their hands."

    Major floods hit North Korea in 2007 and again this summer. But the environmental issues first got the government's attention in 1995, when catastrophic floods damaged about 40 percent of the country's rice paddies and contributed to a famine that killed an estimated two million people.

    "Then the government said, 'Okay, we need to do something,'" says Xu Jianchu, a senior scientist at the World Agroforestry Center, a  global research institution.

    According to Xu, different government ministries had different ideas concerning what to do about the floods. In many places, people had cut down trees to grow their own food. Xu says the agriculture ministry wanted trees back on the mountainsides and people's crops off them.

    A North Korean man shows off a grafted pear seeding.
    A North Korean man shows off a grafted pear seeding.

    Trees and crops together

    But the environment ministry took a different view. Working with the Swiss aid agency, it started a small pilot project in 2002 to plant fruit and nut trees and medicinal bushes on the sloping hillsides, alongside people's crops.

    "We get the tree cover back, and, second, also, we do provide the needs of the local people for food," says Jianchu.

    The World Agroforestry Center joined the project in 2008. Earlier in the decade, Pyongyang had begun loosening its tight controls over the country's food production. Xu says the government organized households into user groups which were given autonomy to choose what kinds of trees to grow. That was important, Xu says, because for one thing, the government had been offering only pine, poplar and larch trees for hillside planting - three species the farmers didn't want really don't want because they were not related to their food security.

    User groups are raising fruit seedlings, which are often not available from the local government forestry nursery.
    User groups are raising fruit seedlings, which are often not available from the local government forestry nursery.

    The user groups were allowed to establish their own fruit-tree nurseries to expand production. With help terracing the steep hills and improving their farming practices, Xu says food production has increased, and farmers are even selling their surplus in local markets.

    However, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of how much they are producing. According to Xu, people tend to say they grew less than they did because they believe the government will take away their surplus.

    "They try to always under-report what they harvest because sometimes they are still afraid the government will take away if they produce too much," he says.

    A good start

    While the policy remains controversial, Xu says it's gaining support in the government. He says the best indication that the project is working is that it's growing.

    What started with just three groups is now up to about 60, covering several hundred hectares of land.

    That's a small fraction of the more than one million acres of deforested hillside being farmed, according to a report Xu co-wrote on the subject.

    But it's a good start, says the Peterson Institute's Marcus Noland.

    "I'm not sure whether the policies they're now pursuing on these projects are the most optimal, but the idea that at least they're trying to plant trees and reverse some of this process is a good sign."

    But Noland adds that deforestation is just one of the major food production problems North Korea faces. He says it will take a revival of the country's overall economy to end the country's chronic problems with hunger.


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora