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Do You Remember Songgye?

Posted April. 06, 2007 08:01,   


“Don’t even touch one speck of dust on Mount Hyangjeok where we make an offering to the mountain spirit – Members of the Hyanghan-ri songgye,” a banner reads.

It was 3 p.m., Wednesday at the foot of Mount Hyangjeok, Hyanghan-ri, in South Chungcheong Province. Banners protesting against damaging forests were hung here and there near the Musangsa (Musang Temple) where foreign Buddhist monks practice asceticism.

What was peculiar about the banners was that they were claimed to have been made by an unfamiliar organization called “Songgye Association.”

Trees and plants were pulled out everywhere around 50 meters above the back of Musangsa. “Although civic groups proposed to jointly tackle the problem, we were so confident that we declined. We are winning the fight, headed by songgye. All we have to do is restore it to its original state,” Ryu Dam-seon, the treasurer of the Hyanghan-ri songgye, said emphatically.

The songgye refers to a credit association that each village organized to protect surrounding forests in late 18th century in Korea. Each village had their own regulations to collect labor and money from their members who decided how many trees they would cut or plant each year to conserve forests.

In the past, people protected forests with all their might as they were the most precious asset of the village. They were the sources of fertilizer needed for farming and wood which was as important as oil is today and vital for the building of houses.

The members also passed down cultural traditions from generation to generation and formed a joint cultural community through songgye.

However, songgyes suddenly disappeared during the 1970s as the sources of fuel and fertilizer had changed. The Hyanghan-ri songgye has become the only active songgye in the nation.

“I did research nationwide on the songgye and I could conclude that the Hyanghan-ri songgye has been the most active songgye,” said Kang Seong-bok, the author of the Geumsan songgye.

“Susui Michio, a Japanese emeritus professor of Tokyo University, claims that the songgye, which was run by the commoners in Joseon Dynasty, is similar to the model for sustainable development that mankind must adopt in the coming century,” Kang added.

The battle between A, who purchased some 10,000 sq. meters of the municipal forest located on the rear of Musangsa by auction, and the Hyanghan-ri songgye, began last April.

The songgye physically deterred development at the construction site. In addition, when judges were making an on-site survey of the land, after A filed an administrative lawsuit against Gyerong City for disapproving the development of his land, songgye members even tried to persuade the judges. Moreover, the songgye called up its sub-groups like the young men’s association and the senior association and successfully stopped A from persuading the town residents.

A eventually lost the administrative suit last September.

The Hyanghan-ri songgye was, however, once in a crisis when some of its members suggested to sell the mountain as its activities dwindled while taxes continuously increased.

However, the songgye decided to revitalize itself as it has been the foundation of the town. It expanded its members from 70 to 225 and secured over $300,000 with the member admission fee. In addition, it covered its activity expenses by renting land for a broadcasting station’s antenna and a dozen hermitages.

Forest conservation is the foremost important mission of the songgye. They receive information from local residents working as the employees of each hermitage in regard to forest damage, illegal animal hunting and etc. They also wage a campaign of removing hunting traps with the town men’s association.