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“Turning bare land into a green nation”: How South Korea recovered its degraded forests

Strong government, community spirit and Confucianism rebuild Korean forests.
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South Korea - BOGOR, Indonesia (7 November, 2011)_A government-led reforestation program in South Korea has succeeded in producing a substantial increase in forest cover over the past 50 years, according to a new study released by the Center for International Forestry Research.

The study, Forest Transition in South Korea: Reality, Path and Drivers, showed forested land area has almost doubled in size since the mid-1950s, with 60 percent of the country now covered in forests. The increase in forest cover was mainly accomplished through a government-led effort aimed at recovery of degraded forest.

“Understanding the forest transition of South Korea provides a starting point for other developing countries, such as Indonesia, to develop strategies to recover their forest conditions under imperfect governance and low economic development”, said Jae Soo Bae, lead-author of the study and scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research.

Researchers compiled forest data based on historical records from 1927 to 2007 and found a turnaround in forest cover trends “from net deforestation to net reforestation.” The reforestation of degraded land following the Korean War in the early 1950s occurred mostly as a result of natural vegetation recovery.

In the late 1960s, the South Korean government launched strong forest protection policies and declared illegal logging a serious crime. Several years later, the national police force was mobilized to enforce government policies to prevent illegal logging and shifting cultivation, with about 1.4 million hectares of forest planted to provide the basis for the recovery of growing forest stocks.

The increased use of coal in the 1970s further contributed to forest recovery efforts by reducing the demand for firewood, which had until then been the biggest cause of deforestation in South Korea.

At the same time, according to the CIFOR study, economic growth and urbanization further contributed to reforestation efforts, with the migration of rural populations into cities resulting in a drop in firewood consumption and an increase in the volume of growing forest stock.

Also in the 1970s, the Ministry of Internal Affairs oversaw reforestation efforts through directing local governments to lead tree-planting efforts across 1 million hectares, and encouraging villagers to build tree nurseries and sell seedlings for the reforestation program.

The second National Forestation Plan, implemented in the 1980s, focused on rehabilitating degraded lands by establishing 1 million hectares of commercial forests with long-rotation species, rather than fuelwood forests. The President at the time, Park Chung-hee declared reforestation the first national priority and called on the public to contribute to the goal of “turning bare land into a green nation.” A public awareness campaign was launched to promote the government’s message that planting trees was an “act of patriotism.”

“The core success factors that supported forest recovery of South Korea were external to the forestry sector. Korea has a long history of a strong communitarian culture, where mountainous forests were viewed as common-pool resources as well as sacred places,” said Bae.

“In addition, the strength of Confucianism in the country at the time worked with President Park’s portrait of himself as a patriarch leading the country through a difficult period.”

The study concludes that degraded forest lands can be successfully regenerated with strong leadership from the national government and clear goals to generate broad public support for reforestation efforts.

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  • HY Hwang

    The study ‘Forest Transition in South Korea: Reality, Path and Drivers’ by Bae et al is a mixed bag. While the Bae study brings new and interesting points, such as increase of forest volume in South Korea between 1927-1943 and an earlier forest transition time (1955) than previously thought (1963), it is marred by what might be described as propaganda rather than rigorous analysis. The study argues that recovery of forest prior to 1973 is largely due to natural vegetation recovery whereas it implies that strong government effort was responsible for significant recovery afterwards. The section ‘Government-led efforts and supreme leader’s strong will’ in particular is dubious with apparent aim of glorifying President Park Chunghee while dismissing others, such as his predecessor President Rhee Syngman.

    Republic of Korea soon after its government was proclaimed in 1948 quickly made Arbor Day a national holiday – it was first celebrated in 1949. Anecdotally, I learned recently from my father, born in 1944, that people were arrested for cutting down trees illegally even during the Korean War (where he lived in Honam region) in 1950-1953 and that he participated in school-organized tree planting as a middle schooler in the 1950s. The Bae study does mention the policy started in 1958 of restricting firewood inflow into Seoul and other major cities. Thus there clearly was strong government reforestation effort in the 1950s despite author’s seemingly contrary arguments. This is a speculation on my part, but I suspect that the fact that Syngman Rhee had spent a great deal of time in the USA, where Arbor Day originated, may have had a part in early government emphasis in reforestation.

    Some of the main arguments by the Bae study are not particularly well supported by the data it presents. Looking at Fig 1, much of the recovery in forest area excluding non-stocked forestland occurs prior to 1973. In fact, the area of steepest increase is shortly after FT of 1955. Perhaps the intensive efforts in 1970s and beyond were more important for recovery of forests in difficult terrains. Examination of Fig 3 and average volume of growing stock reveals a curve, which looks like an exponential growth curve. There are two ‘bumps’ in the curve – around 1972-1973 and 1979-1980. Presumably this may be due to the intensive government effort referred to by Bae et al, although the authors do not make this point. Aside from these bumps, increase in forest volume is gradual with little difference from 1950s through the 1970s and moves according to exponential growth curve, and brings to question whether the authors overstate the effects of the 10-year effort starting in 1973.

    I have little doubt that intensive efforts started in 1973 made a sizeable contribution to reforestation in South Korea, as well as the efforts in 1980s and later, which is discussed extensively by this review although not by Bae et al. I also agree that the changes in demographics (rural to urban migration), economy (source of fuel), etc. were important. However, it is disingenuous to blatantly trumpet efforts of some government groups while dismissing merely as ‘natural vegetation recovery’ the efforts of previous generation, who built up the basis (e.g. educating the public for benefits of trees) for the success enjoyed by later generation.