Sustainable forestry: Republic of Korea has lessons to offer to developing countries

By Sarwat Chowdhury, Policy Specialist at UNDP Seoul Policy Centre

April 24, 2019

Famed environmentalist E.O. Wilson once said, “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” And we are burning a lot of paintings to cook our dinners. Every single minute, we’re losing 40 football fields of forests.

From keeping our air healthier, absorbing carbon dioxide, to providing livelihoods for people, forests are good for people and planet. As we can see with good reforestation practices in the Republic of Korea – South Korea – the rest of the world can take note.

At the UNDP Seoul Policy Centre, we not only wanted to consider how South Korea managed its reforestation, but also decided to look at whether investment in reforestation made financial sense.

We looked at the historical data on reforestation and estimated data on avoided disasters. Our conclusion was that whereas the initial investment in reforestation was significant, South Korea could eventually reap benefits.  The study showed the total forest stocking volume in Korea increased from 63.8 million m3 in 1967 to 924.8 million m3 in 2015.

We worked with South Korean experts on a similar study that was published this year in the journal Ecosystem Services that estimated the changes in ecosystem services in relation to the monetary investment on forestation in ROK, at a national scale. These benefits cover a wide range --from carbon sequestration (which helps climate change mitigation), water yield enhancement, soil erosion control to disaster risk reduction. This work also highlighted that early and extensive investment can help economic viability and successful implementation of forestation programs.

Besides the analysis at the macro level, we examined some existing forestry services in South Korea, looking at selected experience of experimental forest. We considered the cases of sub-tropical climate forests, Hannam, Seogwipo and Gotjawal, located in Jeju island. This analysis focusing on sustainable forest management provided a set of practical ideas for forestry practitioners in various countries.

To bring the findings to a wider audience and influence South-South cooperation, UNDP organized a gathering of policy makers and forestry experts from 10 countries from Asia Pacific, Africa and Central America. We believe the South Korean reforestation experience presents a unique reference – of a country where economic development and environmental sustainability became closely intertwined at a relatively early stage offering a win-win story that needs to be retold.

Experience of our Centre shows that learning and adopting policy tools from other countries can be a difficult but rewarding process. Our pilot work known as Development Solutions Partnerships (DSP) initiative offers a proven model in the form of triangular cooperation (UNDP in Seoul and in developing countries, Korean counterparts, and our national partners in developing countries) that our Centre has used for knowledge sharing and mutual learning. This work builds on the comparative advantages of UNDP in the field, in this case, in sustainable forestry. Our aim is to share South Korean knowledge, expertise in sustainable forest management and reforestation to countries facing the challenge of implementing their Sustainable Development Goal 15, Life on Land. This knowledge sharing and mutual learning will be adapted to the local socio-economic and environmental realities.

Ambassador Park Chull-joo, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Korean Mission to the United Nations, highlighted the strategic importance of forestry in the Korean Peninsula; and that forest restoration is a priority area for inter-Korean cooperation.

Sharing and learning from such successful development examples from around the world can help us work together towards achieving the integrated and indivisible SDGs, including Goal 15 on Life on Land, and the overall 2030 Agenda.