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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 (Pyeongchang2018 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 Pyeongchang, 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, which came to power at the end of the 14th Century, and with its greatest king Sejong the Great (1418-1450) during whose reign Mount Gariwang became famous for its cultivation of the best quality jinsaeng (ginseng), Korea’s ‘king of herbs’, and a farm there was dedicated exclusively to the use of the Palace. Mount Gariwang was designated as ‘Jinsaeng-cultivating mountain dedicated to the King’. The mountain came under royal protection and access was strictly controlled which allowed its flora and fauna to thrive. Big Trees at Mount Gariwang - Japanese Yew (photo by Nam, Joonki)Big Trees at Mount Gariwang - Japanese Yew (photo by Nam, Joonki)

In modern times the Korean Ministry of the Environment designated this mountain as an ‘Ecosystem Preservation Zone’ and the Forest Service Korea, as a ‘Protected Area for Forest Genetic Resource Conservation’. In addition to its top-quality jinsaeng, Panax ginseng (Koean Ginseng), Mount Gariwang is home to tens of thousands of large-size, climate change-vulnerable coniferous trees such as Taxus cuspidata (Japanese Yew), Thuja koraiensis (Korean arbor-vitae), Abies holophylla (Manchurian Fir), Abies nephrolepis (Khingan Fir) and Oplopanax elatus (Tall Oplopanax). Also abundant in the forests of Mount Gariwang are rare big trees with a branch diameter of over 3.0cms such as the largest plantation of the hybrid Betula ermani var. ganjuensis (Ganjuan Birch), which is known as Wangsasre in Korea and is unique to the Korean peninsula, the endemic Quercus mongolica (Mongolian oak), Kalopanax septemlobus, and the Prunus maackii (Manchurian Cherry) that boasts the most beautiful bark in the Northeast Asian Region. The habitat in the construction zone contains the Allium Microdictyon (Long-root Allium) and Aconitum Coreanum (Corean Aconitum) and very rare endemic plants such as Viola Diamantica and Hanabusaya Asiatica (Diamond Bluebell) which are listed by the Forest Service Korea as ‘rare endemic species’. Thuja koraiensis is listed as ‘vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 'threatened’ 'Red List', while the first three and Panax ginseng, along with Allium microdictyon (Long-root Allium) and Aconitum coreanum (Corean Aconitum), are categorised as ‘vulnerable' or 'near threatened’ on the List of Korea's Rare Plants, published by the Korea National Arboretum in 2009 based on the IUCN's Threatened Species Criteria (2001). Ha-Bong forest (photo by Rebecca Kim)Ha-Bong forest (photo by Rebecca Kim) Viola Diamantica and Hanabusaya Asiatica (Diamond Bluebell), although lifted from 'Endangered' status in 1998, still remain as 'Rare endemic species' on the same list. Mount Gariwang is also one of a kind as a habitat for a wide variety of mammals, one of which, the Eurasian otter Lutra lutra, is described as ‘near endangered’ on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) ‘Red List’. Other species which are considered ‘vulnerable’ according to the Red Data Book of Endangered Mammals In Korea, published by the Ministry of Environment Korea in August 2012, include the yellow throated marten Martes flavigula, the leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis and the Siberian flying squirrel Pteromys Volans. The Asian badger Meles leucurus is listed by the Ministry of Environment as ‘near threatened’.

The scandal which unfolded when the bid for Pyeongchang2018 was conceived saw this protection withdrawn to enable this part of the forest at Mount Gariwang to be destroyed to make way for the downhill event. It turned out in December 2011 that Gangwon Province and POCOG had never even tried, from the time of the first bid in 2001, to make any ‘prior’ location assessment or relevant outsourced report before they decided and tendered to the IOC evaluation panel that there should be a new complex of Alpine Ski competition slopes and facilities at Mount Gariwang.

The designation nullified, the destruction begun, Korean civil society deceived

Forestry Service sign designating areas as important for preserving genetic resources and endangered plantsForestry Service sign designating areas as important for preserving genetic resources and endangered plants

In August 2013, in order to allow the mountain’s use for Pyeongchang2018, the Forest Service of Korea lifted the ‘Protected Area’ designation on the area of 78.3ha (about 3%) out of the total area of 2,475ha under protection to enable the ski slope construction based on the ‘Special Act on Support, etc., for Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games’, which was hurriedly enacted in 2012. This arbitrary Act, which is typical of Olympic projects, gravely undermined the ‘Prior Environmental Impact Assessment’ procedure that should have been strictly imposed on any construction project on any part of such a significant ‘climax forest’ as Mount Gariwang. The government had persuaded objecting Korean environmental organisations into collaborating with them by making vacuous and false promises that they would ‘restore’ the destroyed section of the mountain after the Olympics. Critics of this plan have pointed out that this ‘restoration’ plan was always false because Gariwang mountain is not ‘restorable’ because its forests are delicately interconnected with one another by the configuration of its rocks which make it a vast ‘wind-hole’ zone. Once the construction work shaves off the surface layer of the earth and ‘hardens’ it for building the ski slope this ‘wind-hole’ zone in the construction site is lost forever and this loss will have a fatal impact on the rest of the zone. The giant "Wangsasre," a hybrid birch unique to Korea in Mt. Gariwang-sanThe giant "Wangsasre," a hybrid birch unique to Korea in Mt. Gariwang-san

The ‘restoration’ plan is also vacuous because the Gangwon Provincial Government has no specific practicable ‘restoration’ plan other than hoping for ‘natural succession’, in other words it hopes that by ‘leaving it as it is it will return naturally to what it used to be’. This utterly irresponsible attitude is itself a serious breach of the condition of the construction clearly stated in the ‘Plan of Conservation and Restoration of Mount Gariwang, and of a Partial Lifting of its Designation as a Forest Genetic Resource Conservation Zone afterwards’ that was passed by the Forest Service Korea in May 2013. It states that “After the Olympics the ski slopes should be restored into their original state and returned to their original ‘Forest Genetic Resource Conservation Zone’ status”.

The deception practised by the central and provincial governments is further demonstrated by the failure to allocate responsibility for meeting the costs of the restoration. The budget for the ‘ecological restoration’ is calculated to be about 108.1 billion won (around £63m) for the total destroyed area of 525,800sqms, the ‘forest of 9th degree on the Green Naturality scale’. Gangwon Province is scheduled to build a 12,000 spectator-capacity Alpine Ski competition venue with a budget of 109.5 billion won on an area of 1,837,291sqms at Mount Gariwang. So according to the plan, the ‘restoration’ will require almost the same budget. However, the budget for the restoration has not been made the responsibility of any of the various bodies involved in the project. The ‘Special Act’ to support the 2018 Olympics does not make mention of the restoration project although it states the Korean government must pay over 75% for the construction of the facilities. The Ministry of Environment, the Forest Service and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which is in charge of the Olympics, are passing the buck from one to another. Gangwon Province is insisting that the money should be handed down from the central government, since they have the money to pay for the restoration. The reality is even this absurd restoration may not be attempted as both Gangwon Province and POCOG have stated at different times that they would rather ‘develop’ than ‘restore’ the construction site into another full-fledged ski resort after the Olympics are finished. What's more precious?What's more precious?

Disgracefully for all the organising bodies alternatives exist as environmentalists have repeatedly tried to point out. Even if they do not match the site at Mount Gariwang it might be thought that organisations like the IOC, which touts its concern for the environment as its Third Dimension, would consider the preservation of a treasure like the forest at Mount Gariwang as being more important than three days of skiing and choose to adopt an alternative course. The 2-RUN rule is allowed by the FIS for Alpine Ski events under ‘exceptional circumstances’ and could have been applied at five different sites in the vicinity. As Green Korean United noted on their post-felling statement on 19th September:

“If Mt. Gariwang is destroyed despite the 2RUN provision or 750m exceptional provision in Alpine Skiing games according to FIS Rules, this will be to the shame of the IOC. We already have a track record of beautiful and precious forests being destroyed in the world due to the Winter Olympics. While the IOC boasts the fancy festivity of the Winter Olympics, the local people, the forest, and the wild plants and animals in the forest suffer seriously from damaged ecosystems, environmental contamination and budget waste. This mistake is repeated every 4 years in different countries. The IOC must stop this vicious circle.”

Alternatively a 1-RUN course could have been created by adding a 100m-long artificial slope onto the existing ski slope in Yongpyeong Resort while an even better alternative exists at Manhang-jae, which is a mountain peak with an elevation of 1,450m above sea level and which would allow a 4km slope and a vertical drop of 900m from the top to the township Gurye-ri located 630m above sea level. This would easily satisfy the course condition of any Alpine Ski competition. The Haiwon Resort right next to Manhang-jae already contains an international-standard ski course, a condominium and hotels complex and a convention centre. Manhang-Jae (Photo Green Korea United)Manhang-Jae (Photo Green Korea United) Manhang-jae is the most viable alternative and has been continually presented to Gangwon Province and POCOG construction by environmental groups and even by the Korea Forest Service as the ‘ground for objection’ to destroying Mount Gariwang for the ski slope, an alternative which Gangwon Province, the POCOG, the FIS and the IOC have flatly dismissed.

Instead of upholding their proclaimed ideals and taking account of the ‘exceptional circumstances’, as Choony Kim, executive director of the Korea Civil Network on the CBD and Chief of International Affairs of the Korea Federation for Environmental Movement/Friends of the Earth South Korea, noted, they have pursued their objective of destroying this part of the forest:Mourning the loss of the 'Grandma' Ash (photo by Nam, Joonki)Mourning the loss of the 'Grandma' Ash (photo by Nam, Joonki)

“Even though there are ways to save the trees as well as to hold a downhill ski event, the International Ski Federation is sticking to its support of the destructive development at Mount Gariwang. The fate of the ancient forest now depends on a decision by the International Olympic Committee and the International Ski Federation. We are hoping that wisdom prevails among decision makers.”

As is so often the case with sporting mega-events like the Olympics such wisdom was too much to hope for.

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