Hall Healy, chairman of the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation, has been engaged for years in the effort to protect the migratory cranes in North Korea and restore their habitats. Since 2008, the group has been raising money and coordinating efforts to help a farming community on the Anbyon Plain, roughly 60 miles north of the DMZ.
Through helping the Anbyon farmers, Healy said they are also helping the cranes. When there’s more food for the farmers, there’s also more rice left over in the fields for the cranes, Healy said. The birds also benefit from a pond that was recently built and stocked with fish.
“You have to work with the people,” Healy said. “And if the people have needs, and they always do, you have to help them first.”
Founded in 1973, the International Crane Foundation works in countries around the world to protect the 15 species of cranes in existence.
The North Korea project — which focuses on the red-crowned and white-naped cranes — has special meaning for Healy, who’s been closely involved since its inception. He’s traveled to the DMZ more than a dozen times, and to the Anbyon Plain twice — most recently in November 2011. He plans to return in the fall.
Anbyon was targeted as a priority area, out of concern that a large wetlands area south of the DMZ, near Seoul, could be developed soon, Healy said. If that development occurs, Anbyon would give cranes a reliable haven.
Over the past five years, the foundation has raised about $200,000, including in-kind services, for machinery, fertilizer, training and building supplies, Healy said. Partnering with other groups — including the State Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, North Korea, the Anbyon farming cooperative, BirdLife International and the Germany-based Hanns Seidel Foundation — it has turned that relatively small amount of money into significant results, Healy said.
So far, it’s worked out well for the farmers. The primary crop in Anbyon is rice, Healy said, but the farmers are also now planting fruit trees and raising livestock. Organic fertilizer, new machinery and sustainable farming techniques have improved the crop yield and the health of the soil, he said.
On the crane side, it’s still a work in progress. Last winter, cranes circled but did not land in Anbyon. But they landed the two years previous, Healy said, and better results are expected this year.
Wildlife conservation that directly benefits people is becoming a more popular approach, said Jeff Walk, an ornithologist and director of science for the Nature Conservancy in Illinois. And cranes are an excellent focus, he said, because people are naturally drawn to them.
“It’s a good thing. You need that hook with people,” Walk said. “We call them ‘an umbrella species.’ You work to protect them and a whole other community benefits, too.”
Compared with working in other countries, Healy said communication with the North Korean farmers has been limited and indirect. Through the United Nations mission in New York, the International Crane Foundation communicates with the State Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, instead of directly with the farming cooperative.
Healy worked previously as president of the DMZ Forum, a New York-based group focused on ecological preservation in the DMZ.
Seung-ho Lee, current president of the DMZ Forum, said conservation work in North Korea is inherently “a trust-building process” with people who have been largely cut off from the Western world. The Anbyon project is effective because it yields results without ideology or politics, he said.
“It’s a very useful approach,” Lee said. “To give them a sense of volunteerism and work, but to also give them a real product.”