South Korea – After the Korean War in the mid-1950s, the Korean peninsula was divided, its economy and society in shambles and its forests devastated. The Republic of Korea recognized the role forests could play in the newly-formed country’s recovery and made it a national priority to erase the damage caused by intensive bombing and decades of colonial mismanagement.
Half a century later, the nation of 50 million people that’s about the same size as Iceland has doubled its forest coverage to 65 percent, creating a resource that provides clean air and water, economic opportunities and well-being in addition to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The changes weren’t easy and required a concerted effort by government and civil society.
“The barren hills of Korea were in desperate need of restoration,” said Ban Ki-Moon, former United Nations Secretary General, in an address to the Asia-Pacific Forest Week in Incheon, South Korea. Cooperation was key to South Korea’s successful transformation. “The tasks are too great for any one country or institution and we need to work together,” he said.
“The barren hills of Korea were in desperate need of restoration”
Korea’s reforestation success highlights the opportunities for the Asia-Pacific region, which has the least amount of forested area per capita in the world, of the benefits of healthy forests. Research on forests by the Center of International Forestry Research and other organizations is increasing understanding of the contributions of forests to economies, health and well-being, in addition to their role in tackling climate change.
However, each year, the world loses 650 million hectares of natural forest, or 750 hectares an hour, according to the Green Climate Fund. That corresponds to more than a billion tons of carbon emissions annually – in addition to all the other lost ecosystem services.
“Why do forests matter? They matter because forests slow climate change and increase resilience,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research.
Forests also help sustain agriculture including hosting pollinators, controlling pests, and regulating water, said Nasi. They also boost well-being through activities like the Japanese concept of forest bathing or “Shinrin Roku.” “The world needs more forests and greater use of forest products,” Nasi added.
“Why do forests matter? They matter because forests slow climate change and increase resilience”
A number of initiatives across Asia highlight the benefits of protecting forests. Social forestry policy in Indonesia has focused on protecting forests and emphasizing non-timber forest products, including fruits and fiber, according to Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya. “Social forestry has helped show that primary forests should be protected for these benefits,” she said, during a speech in Incheon.
Indonesia’s social forestry policy allows communities to produce food crops and participate in ecotourism, providing jobs and economic security, said Nurbaya. Small-scale rubber production for use in tire manufacturing is another example of the kind of economic opportunities that exist for forested regions, she added.
Vietnam has had a system of Payment for Ecological Services, or PES, including watershed protection, natural landscape protection for aesthetic purposes and biodiversity conservation for tourism, forest carbon sequestration, and the provision of the forest hydrological services for spawning in coastal fisheries and aquaculture since 2010.
The system aims to improve forest quality and quantity, increase the forestry sector’s contribution to the national economy, reduce Vietnam’s financial burden for forest protection and management, and improve social well-being, according to a study by the CGIAR’s research program on Forest, Trees and Agroforestry. In areas where environmental degradation is more evident, the policy has been more effective, said CIFOR senior scientist Thuy Thu Pham.
“Forests will be a vehicle to promote peace and prosperity around the world”
Transitioning to a system where forests are valued for more of their benefits requires foresters to become “land managers” and engage more often with communities, cities, the financial sector among others, said Ben Gunneberg, Secretary General, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. “It’s important to stop thinking about forests just as timber.”
South Korea has even bigger aspirations. The country plans to extend the benefits of forests to all people on the Korean peninsula, including North Korea, said Kim Jae-hyun, minister of the Korea Forest Service. And perhaps beyond.
“Forests will be a vehicle to promote peace and prosperity around the world,” he said.