“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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Photo courtesy of Adam79/flickr.

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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Topic(s) :   Community forestry Rights Restoration