Want to be rich? Invest in mountains

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Want to be rich? Invest in mountains

Twenty-two years of digging up a bare mountain have made a former businessman 10 billion won ($10.3 million) richer.
“Mountains are like diamond mines,” said Ham Beon-ung, 64, the owner of Dong-a Imjang (imjang means forestry). “They can provide an endless fortune.”
The route to Mr. Ham’s logging camp in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang province, passes along a lakeside road, a kilometer (0.6 miles) away from the village of Songlim-ri. From the entrance, one can see the yellow flowers of dogwood trees in full bloom.
Mr. Ham and five workers sat planting bonnet bellflowers under the trees. “We planted 1 million trees from 130 species on an area covering 110 hectares (about 25 acres). If a tree costs 10,000 won, all the trees here would be worth more than 10 billion won,” Mr. Ham said.
Mr. Ham used to be in the construction business but thought logging would be more dependable and profitable, so in 1977 he bought the mountain for 40 million won ($40,000 at the current rate). He sold his construction business in 1984.
“Unlike the construction business, [logging companies] are taxed lightly and there are no unions. I thought it was environmentally friendly and if everything went well, it would be a valuable asset,” he said.
There was a slight catch: The mountain didn’t have any trees.
For the first four years, he planted pine trees, zelkova, oak, larch and cedar, all of which can be used for lumber. By law, at least 30 years must pass before the trees can be cut down, which means a potential logger has a long wait before he can make a profit.
Mr. Ham, however, wanted to make a profit as soon as possible. He went overseas to learn about forestry business techniques, but couldn’t find a way to make the money roll in faster. He later ran into an elderly man in a rural market and heard about some plants that can be a source of raw materials for traditional medicine. Japanese dogwood can be used to lower blood pressure, elder trees are used to treat osteoporosis and catalpa trees for kidney diseases.
Mr. Ham studied plants used in pharmacology and read books such as “Donguihak,” a North Korean guide to herbal medicine. He said he read countless books about the subject.
He then planted a thousand stumps of birches, elders, Flamingo Chinese tooms, May trees, Acanthopanx sessiliflorum and lacquer trees ― all of which can be cut down within one to 15 years.
Mr. Ham planted bonnet bellflowers under the trees and put goats out to pasture. (He now has over 100 goats.) In spring, he extracts sap from the trees and invites tourists, charging them for picking herbs. He earns tens of millions of won simply selling sap.
He also built greenhouses for the Chinese toom trees, whose leaves can be used as food. He covered young saplings with paper boxes to keep in moisture and prevent weeds from growing around them.
“I tried to come up with as many ideas as possible to earn money while waiting until the trees could be cut down for timber,” Mr. Ham said.
Among the trees he has grown, the zelkova, Chinese toom, cedar, birch and fir are used for landscaping. elders, birch , Flamingo Chinese tooms and castor aralia trees are sold as nursery plants. These trees’ branches and buds are cut and sold as raw materials for traditional medicine.
The income from the medicine side of the business alone accounts for 100 million won a year. “I invested 4.2 billion won over the past 22 years and took 2 billion won home, but the trees and mountains are still there and they’re growing in value,” Mr. Ham said.
Mr. Ham said he could buy one- or two-year old trees for 1,000 won or 2,000 won and sell them for at least 100,000 won each after 10 years.

by Hwang Sun-yoon
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