In a country where good news is scarce, a pioneering agroforestry project in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is restoring heavily degraded landscapes and providing much-needed food for communities living on the sloping lands.
Jianchu Xu, East-Asia Coordinator for the World Agroforestry Centre, which has been providing technical expertise and training for the project since 2008, said agroforestry -- in this case the growing of trees on sloping land -- is uniquely suited to DPR Korea for addressing food security and protecting the environment.
"What we have managed to achieve so far has had a dramatic impact on people's lives and the local environment," Jianchu explains.
"Previously malnourished communities are now producing their own trees and growing chestnut, walnut, peaches, pears and other fruits and berries as well as medicinal bushes," Jianchu explains. "They have more food and vitamins and are earning income through trading."
Following the collapse of the socialist bloc in 1989 and a lack of subsidies for agriculture in DPR Korea, famine and malnutrition became widespread in rural areas.
DPR Korea is a harsh mountainous country where only 16% of the land area is suitable for cultivation. In desperation in the 1990s, people turned to the marginal sloping lands but this had a price: deforestation for cropping land and fuelwood left entire landscapes denuded and depleted of nutrients.
In an effort to reverse the situation, an innovative and pioneering project began in 2002 involving the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Korea's Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection. The World Agroforestry Centre was later brought in to provide technical advice.
Suan County has since expanded to 65 user groups in seven counties, with several hundred hectares of sloping land now under sustainable management. And the project is still growing.
A system of establishing user groups with one representative from each family has enabled demonstration plots to be set up and a large number of households to benefit from knowledge about growing multi-purpose trees. Such trees can improve and stabilize soils as well as provide fertilizer, fodder or fruits.
Most of the people farming the sloping lands are pension workers with little agricultural experience. The agroforestry systems they are now implementing and the techniques they have learnt are significantly increasing tree cover on the slopes as well giving them a diversity of crops.
Several of the user groups have started their own nurseries so that they can be self-sufficient and produce their own planting materials.
Initially a European consultant was engaged to provide advice on sloping land management, but in 2008 SDC brought the World Agroforestry Centre's China office into the project.
"With similar experiences and history, our Chinese staff were well-placed to work in DPR Korea," explains Jianchu. "It was important to have people with an understanding of the technical, institutional and socio-political context."
There are very few international organizations operating in DPR Korea, and most of these are providing emergency relief. "With our strong focus on capacity development, we have established a good reputation," adds Jianchu. So much so that the Centre is now negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the government and there are plans to establish an office in the country.
According to Jianchu, one of the most important aspects to ensuring the project is sustained is capacity development at all levels.
"As well as the user groups, we are providing training to multi-disciplinary working groups comprising representatives from the national academy, agricultural universities, forestry research and planning institutes, and staff of the Ministry."
"There is an enormous need to improve knowledge and skills in DPR Korea in the area of natural resource management and to nurture young scientists," says Jianchu. SDC is now investing in this area. Each year over the past few years, a handful of students from DPR Korea have undertaken studies with the Center for Mountain Ecosystem Studies, jointly run by the World Agroforestry Centre and the Chinese Academy of Sciences and hosted by the Kunming Institute of Botany in China. Some could be considered for a doctoral program in the future.
To further support the up-skilling of DPR Korea scientists and the up-scaling of agroforestry, the Centre will soon publish an agroforestry manual. Work is also underway on an agroforestry policy for sloping lands management and an agroforestry inventory.
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