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[Herald Interview] Korea Forest Service on keeping the country green

Forestry body chief talks multiple green projects and goals during his tenure


Amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, more South Koreans are rediscovering the joy of immersing themselves in nature, heading out to rugged mountains away from crowded cities.

With some 63 percent of its land covered in forest, as opposed to the global average of 30 percent, Korea is indeed a country for hikers, with mountaineering being one of the favorite hobbies of many.

While more people are reconnecting with nature to cope with unprecedented changes in life, there is also a growing sense of crisis from abnormal weather events occurring around the world and with scientists warning of another pandemic after COVID-19 as a result of the destruction in nature.

For the Korea Forest Service, all of this highlights the importance of its role at home and even globally.

In a recent interview with The Korea Herald, Minister Choi Byeong-am who was appointed in late March to head the KFS discussed his vision, forest policy and a range of ongoing environmental projects.

The Korea Herald: South Korea is considered a successful example of land afforestation. Have there been recent examples of international acknowledgment for its forest policy?

Choi Byeong-am: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations credited South Korea as the only developing country to succeed in afforestation in 1982. Lester Brown, a well-known environmental activist, has also hailed Korea’s reforestation as an international model in his book “Plan B 4.0.”

According to a 2019 report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s Committee on Forestry, Korea had the highest increase rate of forest resources per hectare -- a 196 percent jump -- between 1990 and 2015 among countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition, there has been high demand in developing countries to learn our advanced forest recreation and forest restoration technology including building a center for ecotourism in Tunak on Lombok island in Indonesia and an ecotourism project in Cambodia.

Korea Forest Service Minister Choi Byeong-am (KFS)
Korea Forest Service Minister Choi Byeong-am (KFS)

KH: Is there any forest policy that Korea is leading globally?

Choi: There are three policies that our government is leading. One is the Changwon Initiative. Launched in 2011 at the 10th Conference of the Parties of UNCCD in Changwon in South Gyeongsang Province, it defined a new concept called land degradation neutrality and played a major role in being named as part of Life of Land, one of the UN’s sustainable development goals in 2015.

The Changwon Initiative marks the 10th anniversary this year and we are preparing a meaningful event in Changwon on Oct. 15.

Secondly, we have the Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism project which we are pursuing jointly with the FAO. In its seventh year this year, the amount of contribution to the project has increased 20-fold while the number of beneficiary countries also rose from eight to 25.

Lastly, we have the Peace Forest Initiative which was proposed by our government and then selected through a United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification conference.

It is a program designed to ultimately ensure peace and trust by encouraging and supporting neighboring countries that border each other to pursue joint projects such as forest restoration, and contribute to restoring the global ecosystem.

KH: Tell us about the Asian Forest Cooperation Organization whose creation was led by Korea.

Choi: The AFoCO was officially launched as an international organization following an agreement in April 2018. A range of projects are taking place for forest cooperation in Asia. In Laos, a resident-led project in restoring damaged forests is being pursued while another project in the Philippines is taking place to encourage wood production.

In December, the group earned the role as an observer at the United Nations General Assembly, establishing its position as an international organization that takes part in UN-level discussions on sustainability and green growth.

KH: How is the preparation for this year’s World Forestry Congress going?

Choi: The World Forestry Congress has been taking place every six years since 1926 as the largest and most influential international forum in the field of forestry.

The 15th edition will take place at Coex in Seoul in May next year. With the main theme being “Building a Green, Healthy and Resilient Future with Forests,” the importance of forests in the climate change era and its new role post-COVID will be discussed.

The KFS is preparing other special events including the Peace Forest Initiative and a forum on forest fires.

KH: The KFS’ recent data said efforts to reduce greenhouse gases abroad have come to fruition. Tell us what REDD+ is.

Choi: REDD+ stands for Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. It is an activity designed to help prevent such scenarios in developing countries while maintaining and increasing forest carbon sinks.

The Center for International Forestry Research said REDD+ can help achieve 37 percent of the global greenhouse gas goal.

KH: Illegal logging is a serious issue around the world. What is being done to stop it in Korea?

Choi: South Korea is one of the 10 countries with the largest wood consumption. Against this backdrop, we advised the drafting of a law which took effect in October 2018, requiring wood importers to report to the minister before clearing customs and to present documentation proving that the products have been produced legally.


KH: You are also a published poet. Tell us what you mean by a “forest policy that also embraces culture.”

Choi: Our forests have financial, environmental, societal values. But at the same time, they are a cultural space that captures our people’s history, tradition and spirit.

If we discover the cultural and humanistic values within our forests, their added values will be worth even more along with our forest policy that has helped generate financial, environmental and societal values.

The KFS plans to transform venues such as arboretums, gardens and urban forests into cultural spaces where cultural activities can be enjoyed to the fullest.

KH: What are your plans and goals for the rest of your term?

Choi: We want to redesign the overall forest policy in a way that strikes a balance between preservation and development.

In addition, we want to work on various forest culture and forest welfare policies to help improve public health, so forests can be a source of comfort to people’s bodies and minds during the coronavirus pandemic. 

By Yim Hyun-su and Lee Kwon-hyoung
(hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
(kwonhl@heraldcorp.com)

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