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How bears, old waterwheel helped Hadong County mountain villages go carbon-free

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An Asian black bear at Bear Village in Uisin Village of Hadong County, South Gyeongsang Province, crawls on a wooden deck, Nov. 23. The female bear, along with her mother, draw visitors from outside the county to this facility built to highlight the importance of ecological preservation. Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan
An Asian black bear at Bear Village in Uisin Village of Hadong County, South Gyeongsang Province, crawls on a wooden deck, Nov. 23. The female bear, along with her mother, draw visitors from outside the county to this facility built to highlight the importance of ecological preservation. Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan

Mount Jiri protected by ecological cause, renewable energies and central gov't funds

By Ko Dong-hwan

HADONG, South Gyeongsang Province ― As the guide at Bear Village makes beckoning sounds into her microphone, two large Asian black bears emerge sluggishly from their abode inside a concrete cubical structure. One female bear, aged 21 (147 years old in human age, according to Choi Da-hee, the guide), approaches the foot of the eight-meter-high wooden observatory deck in the middle of the compound and stands on her hind legs to figure out what is up there ― the guide, this reporter and a tray full of freshly cut pears. Another female bear, aged 16 (112 in human years), climbs up logs of wood laid flat, reaching another deck about the same height as the observatory deck, and faces the humans only about four meters away.

Choi starts throwing the pears one by one to the bears ― which are an endangered species in Korea ― and they gobble up the fruit quickly. The mother, raised in captivity under veterinarian care due to enteritis, couldn't adapt to the wild despite animal experts' efforts to release her, while four other bears raised by the same experts were successfully released. She had become too comfortable with the care provided by humans. The bear later gave birth to two cubs, one of which was sent to a species restoration research center.

"They are a little slow right now because of the cold weather," Choi said. "We will put them into hibernation from late December until March when it gets warmer."

Bear Village, introduced in 2009 deep within Jirisan National Park, is an ecological tourism facility at the small mountain village of Uisin in Hadong County, South Gyeongsang Province. Designated as Carbon-Free Village No.2 in 2017 by the county government and a local cooperative that manages the county's 10 carbon-free villages, Uisin is one of the county's most-invested-in villages to promote its environmental causes. At the entrance to the village are large public parking lots where the village's two electric buses, funded by the central government, are parked. All tour buses coming to the village from outside must stop here and visitors need to take the electric buses to go further into the village.

An underground hydroelectric generator produces enough electricity to supply all households of Moktong Village in Hadong County. The village's former director Kim Soo-man checks the generator's electrical system. Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan
An underground hydroelectric generator produces enough electricity to supply all households of Moktong Village in Hadong County. The village's former director Kim Soo-man checks the generator's electrical system. Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan

Because the village of 56 households is inside the national park, getting licenses for land development here is impossible. Bear Village, which sells admission tickets, bear-themed gifts and food at a cafe inside the facility for 20,000-30,000 visitors each year, is thus a major source of the village's revenue. So is selling sap from the village's painted maple ― it is among the villages that produce the most painted maple sap in the country. But Choi is worried that the unusually warm climate is becoming a rising problem for the village's sap production.

"We may not bring a huge wave of eco-friendly change to the world, but all our local participants of the Carbon-Free Village initiative wanted to be part of this carbon neutralization movement," Choi Jin-gi, the chairman of the county's local cooperative behind the initiative who is also a resident of Uisin, told The Korea Times.

The initiative was selected by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety last July as one among the country's 16 best local communities that are making carbon neutrality a reality. Hadong County government was awarded 400 million won ($300,000) to support the initiative. So far, three carbon-free villages in the county have received government grants to improve their infrastructure and maintain their zero carbon emissions status.

"All the carbon-free villages gained their titles after they got consent from local residents for further eco-friendly improvements, and the county government assessed each of the villages' geographical, ecological and other environmental merits," Choi said. "I remind all village residents not to burn their agricultural waste, like woods, rice stalks and vinyl. Back in old days, they made some serious air pollution. After the initiative was launched, people naturally stopped doing that."

Wheels inside a water mill at Moktong Village rotate rapidly above Kim Soo-man, the village's former director. The mill started as a treadmill decades ago and became automated in 1961 after Kim's father installed a small-scale power generator in it. Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan
Wheels inside a water mill at Moktong Village rotate rapidly above Kim Soo-man, the village's former director. The mill started as a treadmill decades ago and became automated in 1961 after Kim's father installed a small-scale power generator in it. Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan

About 20 minutes from Uisin is Moktong Village, the county's No.1 Carbon-Free Village designated in 2016. The community of 17 households is completely energy self-reliant: 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) by a small-scale hydropower generator, 30 kWh by solar panels and 3 kWh by two wind turbines. The entire village receives more than enough power solely from the hydropower that produces 2,400 kilowatts each day.

The village, however, doesn't draw power directly from those generators. They sell the generated power to the country's biggest state-run power distributor, Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), and receive electricty back from the company. Kim Soo-man, the village's former director who oversees the infrastructure, says that's more lucrative.

"The power rate has gone up recently, which gave us an economical surplus as well," Kim said. "It was 99 won per kilowatt when I first signed up with KEPCO to sell power from the hydro generator in 2017. Now, the rate is probably over 200 won. We also tried geothermal power generation here but authorities declined development approval."

At the center of the village is an old waterwheel, which is still active. Inside a cabin next to the waterwheel, several wheels of different sizes are connected to an axle at ceiling height and rotate, vigorously spun by the waterwheel outside, with one of the wheels connected to a steel cog beneath via a wide rubber belt. The system doesn't feed the village's power network, according to Kim. The cabin, occupying its space there like a museum, is like the village's rickety but proud mascot. Outside the cabin is hung a wooden plaque presented in 2015 by Hadong's former head Yun Sang-ki, who kicked off the county's carbon neutrality drive, congratulating the village on its designation as the county's prototypical carbon-free village.

Residents of 10 carbon-free villages in Hadong County attend the first session of training to become tour guides for visitors to their villages at the county's Myegye Village, Oct. 18 and 19. Eighth from left is Choi Jin-gi, the chairman of the local cooperative managing the carbon-free villages. Courtesy of Hadong County Government
Residents of 10 carbon-free villages in Hadong County attend the first session of training to become tour guides for visitors to their villages at the county's Myegye Village, Oct. 18 and 19. Eighth from left is Choi Jin-gi, the chairman of the local cooperative managing the carbon-free villages. Courtesy of Hadong County Government

"People can come here and experience grinding wheat to make flour with this waterwheel," said Kim, envisioning a new tourism program for his village planned for next year unlike anything else around nowadays.

The waterwheel, before becoming automated, was a treadmill built by Kim's father. The senior Kim hooked it up to a 3-kilogram generator in 1961 and fed power to the entire village of over 30 households so they could use light bulbs at night. It was a pure scene of industrial revolution inside a deep mountain community that is generations old. "I will preserve this mill for future generations," Kim said.

On Oct. 18 and 19, 30 residents from the county's 10 carbon-free villages gathered at Maegye Village, Carbon-Less Village No.9 in the county's Agyang District, to learn how to become tour guides for visitors to their villages. Hosted by Choi and funded by the South Gyeongsang Provincial Government, the first leg of the educational program is to be followed by a more in-depth session later this year.

"The trainees will also plan and direct eco-friendly programs for each of their own villages," the county government official said. "In the process, carbon neutrality will hopefully settle among the village residents' daily routines and be expanded further."
Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr


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