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[Herald Interview] ‘Forestry crucial for healthy, sustainable future of humanity’

As South Korea gears up to host the world’s largest forestry conference next year, KFS Minister Park Chong-ho underscores value of forests

Korea Forest Service Minister Park Chong-ho (Korea Forest Service)
Korea Forest Service Minister Park Chong-ho (Korea Forest Service)

Environmental degradation has become one of the greatest threats to humankind over the past decades. For one, the world is suffering from worsening air pollution, which is linked to deforestation, and the large forest fires that threaten the lives of millions worldwide. 

Forestry is imperative for a healthy and sustainable future of humanity.

As the world is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, experts also believe that deforestation is closely linked to the crisis and that forests can help heal from the aftermath of the virus outbreak.

To cover the ongoing issues regarding forestry, experts and the general public from around the world will gather in Seoul next year for the 15th World Forestry Congress.

Korea Forest Service is the co-host of the international conference that is scheduled to take place from May 24 to 28 next year, at Coex, Seoul.

As South Korea gears up to host the world’s largest forestry conference, KFS Minister Park Chong-ho offered a detailed introduction of the event, and also underscored the value of forestry in an interview with The Korea Herald. Park was named KFS minister in December, 2019, after serving in key posts of the organization for 29 years, the last one being deputy minister.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Korea Herald: South Korea is hosting the 15th World Forestry Congress next year. Please introduce the event.

Park Chong-ho: The World Forestry Congress is the world’s largest forestry conference, held every six years under the auspices of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. The first Congress was held in Italy in 1926, and FAO has helped host countries organize the Congress since 1954.

As the conference deals with all areas related to forestry, such as climate change, biodiversity, desertification and reforestation, it is also called the “Olympics of the Forestry Field.”

KH: Who can participate in the World Forestry Congress?

Park: The congress is an international event open to all. Individuals and organizations interested in the forestry can purchase tickets and register as participants on the official website.

For those who cannot physically attend the event, KFS is reviewing ways to utilize teleconference platforms, and major sessions of the conference will be streamed online.

In addition, KFS is preparing a program to encourage corporate sponsorship of the Congress.

KH: What programs are planned for the World Forestry Congress?

Park: The World Forestry Congress will have a three-day opening event prior to the main conference, which will be held for five days.

The main events consist of the opening and closing ceremonies, plenary sessions and expert discussions on six different topics. Special exhibitions and trips are also planned.

While details of the event are still on discussion with FAO, KFS will take the initiative in preparing the opening and closing ceremonies, Peace Forest Initiative Round Table, and a forum on forest fires.

KH: What is on the agenda at the World Forestry Congress?

Park: The congress reflected on this time of COVID-19 pandemic to choose six sub-themes related to the main theme of the event, “Building a green, healthy and resilient future with forests.”

The six different topics include, “Turning the tide: reversing deforestation and forest degradation”; “Nature-based solutions for climate-change adaptation and mitigation and biodiversity conservation”; “The green pathway to growth and sustainability”; “Forests and human health: revisiting the connections”; “Managing and communicating forest information and knowledge”; and “Forests without boundaries: enhancing management and cooperation.”

Over the third-theme, the green pathway to growth and sustainability, the discussion would be about the important contribution of forest products and services to national economies, and strategies for enhanced financing in the sector for the time after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fourth sub-theme on forests and human health will be about the use of forest resources to improve livelihoods, health and well-being, addressing the connections between COVID-19 and forest ecosystems.

KH: How meaningful is it that South Korea is hosting the World Forestry Congress?

Park: South Korea was chosen as the host for the 15th World Forest Congress, for its successful reforestation policies and for active diplomacy related to forestry.

It is the first time the event has been held in South Korea, and also the first in 43 years in the Asia-Pacific, after Indonesia hosted the event in 1978.

The KFS seeks use the high-level forestry gathering to share Korea’s accomplishments in forest fire prevention, reforestation and eco-tourism, as success models for the rest of the world. The KFS also sees it as an opportunity to promote forest products for export.

South Korea would also be able to reinforce its foothold in the world as a country that succeeded in reforestation, by presenting a future vision for forestry after 2021 at the event.

In addition, KFS also seeks to prepare the event thoroughly and provide a connection between forestry and the New Southern and New Northern Policies, which are major diplomatic plans of the incumbent government to enhance ties with countries in Southeast Asia and north of the Korean Peninsula.

KH: What would South Korea present to the world by hosting the event?

Park: The world expects South Korea to share its experiences of reforestation, cooperation with other countries and also, the management of forest policies.

It is also expected for South Korea to lead discussions on development of the Peace Forest Initiative.

South Korea launched PFI, a program supporting reforestation in border areas facing conflicts to encourage peace, in September, 2019 at the 14th Session of the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification held in New Delhi, India.

In the 1950s, about one-third of South Korea’s forests consisted of bare mountains, but with nationwide tree-planting campaign and efforts of researchers and field technicians, the country succeeded in reforestation.

First forging ties on forestry with Indonesia in 1987, South Korea has embarked on forestry businesses with 33 countries in Asia, the Americas, Africa and the Middle East.

Korea also established the Asian Forest Cooperation Organization in 2011 to start 18 forestry business projects cooperating with 15 countries in Asia.

KH: With the COVID-19 spreading, difficulties are expected in hosting the event. How is KFS preparing to hold the event while containing the virus?

Park: Realistically, it would be difficult to organize a conference like in the past, when thousands of people would gather in one place. KFS currently plans to offer a “hybrid” event, organizing face-to-face meetings and offering teleconferencing routes for participants.

According to South Korea’s five-tier social distancing system, international conferences can be opened even when distancing is raised to Level 2. But it would put limits to the number of participants in the venue, which is one person per 4 square meters.

If the social distancing is at Level 1, KFS will still mandate wearing masks for all participants, and follow other disinfection measures.

The country enforces a mandatory two-week quarantine for all arrivals from overseas, but for entries (judged to be) in the public interest, there is an exception that grants a waiver to the two-week quarantine. KFS will closely cooperate with the quarantine authority for foreign participants.

If a registered participant cannot attend the conference due to the spread of COVID-19, the fee will be refunded.

KH: What are the benefits of forests that we should particularly recognize?

Park: Climate change and deforestation were pointed to as fundamental causes of the COVID-19 pandemic by US economist Jeremy Rifkin in a recent interview with a Korean media outlet.

Therefore, the role of forests will be more important than ever, to contain such virus outbreaks.

In addition, forestry will receive more attention as a nature-based solution to international issues, such as climate change biodiversity and desertification. Forestry is crucial for the healthy and sustainable future of humans.

By Jo He-rim and Lee Kwon-hyoung 
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