The flight from the land

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Farmers have struggled to adapt to the breathtaking pace of change, writes Keith Howard

In 25 years the population of Chindo Island, off the south-western tip of Korea, has shrunk from 100,000 to less than 40,000. It is a story of rural exodus that has been repeated across the country. The pace of change has been quite astonishing.

The flight from the land was a national phenomenon in the 1970s and early 1980s as young people sought more lucrative work in the cities. There were huge social problems for the dwindling, ageing communities that were left behind.

In 1965, 56 per cent of the population were farmers. By the mid-1980s, many smallholdings were deserted, with fields left idle by farmers too old to tend them. Water supplies were damaged by excessive use of fertilisers. Rusting machinery and rubbish accumulated across the countryside.

Today, only 8 per cent of the population are employed on farms.

For Chindo's farmers the lure of the cities proved too much: the mountainous territory hosted a gigantic horse ranch in the west and hilly fields in the south and west, which have produced only subsistence vegetables for most of the past century.

A few roads were cut in the 1930s, allowing the replacement of ox carts with buses, but there was little change until the slow process of reclaiming land from saltwater estuaries began in the mid-1960s. This eventually brought new areas of paddy, but even by the mid-1980s there was no running water, no televisions or hospital and Chindo had only just joined the national electricity grid. When I visited at that time we had to draw water from a well three times a day and there was only one wind-up phone per village.

In 1971, the government launched a National Community Movement to help develop the countryside. It gave free cement to people who agreed to build access roads across their fields and construct communal facilities. Subsidised tin sheeting was provided to replace thatched roofs as a way of reducing levels of vermin - a widespread cause of rural ill-health. Village leaders, chosen centrally but not elected, were trained in Seoul to oversee the building of farming co-operatives, the introduction of new resistant crop variants and the distribution of fertilisers. (One new variey, known as Unification Rice, yielded 37 per cent more crop per hectare than the rest.) They also channelled low-interest credit to farmers to help them to buy machinery and tractors.

But farmers in Chindo simply did not have enough good land to make a decent living. Too many were sinking into debt.

By the mid-eighties, the NCM had been discredited by corruption scandals, the worst involving the South Korean president's brother. As the economy boomed, industrial conglomerates hid profits by buying up huge amounts of land and leaving them fallow, further undermining rural life.

The GATT free-trade agreement, signed in 1994, dealt another serious blow to farmers. Through it, the United States and others forced Korea to open up its subsidised rice production to foreign competition. This brought thousands of farmers on to the streets to protest.

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Chindo's farmers tried to diversify as quickly as they could into tobacco cultivation, dog ranches and edible laver (an algae used as seaweed, a popular Korean dish). Mainland farmers turned to pears; in the north "vinyl cities" - acre upon acre of greenhouses - sprang up for the propagation of tomatoes and strawberries, while further east they concentrated on ginseng. But in the end it was the farmers who diversified that suffered most. Imported fruit, vegetables and meat drastically reduced the amount they could charge: in 1997, livestock prices dropped by 16 per cent.

Chindo's saving, ironically, has been its declining population, because the availability of more land per capita has helped to boost farm incomes. In 1982 most agriculture was executed by hand; today, virtually all rice harvesting is mechanised. There has also been a shift into service industries - especially tourism - with half the island's population now living in the main town.

This is in part due to the nationwide flight to the cities, as their growing affluence has created a new market for tourism, and Chindo has become a popular destination. It boasts a couple of forts, some beautiful scenery, an artistic tradition of international reknown and a remarkable event each May when low spring tides miraculously banish the sea and allow you to walk between island and mainland.

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