Daily Archives: 08/02/2023

2023: Another Challenging Year Ahead for Bird Conservation in the Republic of Korea

Dr Nial Moores, Director, Birds Korea

Launched formally in 2004, Birds Korea is a small, legally-registered NGO with only about 300 members, and since last year, two branches (national in Busan, and local in Yeoncheon).  Although fully independent, much of our work is done under contract to local governments, in collaboration with larger NGOs, the EAAFP Secretariat or the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Korea office) or through small grants and donations. 

Collaboration is at the heart of our work approach: here Birds Koreans with the manager of the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve, and representatives from the EAAFP Secretariat, the Hanns Seidel Foundation and eBird, in Yeoncheon CCZ, November 2022

As our members know, at all times Birds Korea uses science-based advocacy for the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Ecoregion. As such, we depend entirely on national laws and strategies, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and texts of international conventions to shape our work, which includes gathering data and relevant information for use in informing strategies, plans and designs. We also engage in education and public awareness activities when we can, and provide reports and papers on key sites and species to relevant communities and decision-makers, as well as to our members

In 2023, we aim to continue work done in 2022 and earlier, (1) With Yeoncheon County in the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve; (2) For the globally Endangered Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus, in Yeoncheon and along additional rivers (including, we hope, the Seomjin River); (3) On Baengyeong Island, with the aim of publishing an updated report or a peer-reviewed paper that can help inform discussions on the proposed airport there (our 2019 report can be found here); (4) At Gadeokdo, in Busan (also site of a proposed new airport); and (5) In support of World Heritage listing of key tidal-flats and coastal wetlands in the ROK, including the Hwaseong Wetlands.

If capacity allows and opportunities are made available, we also aim to continue providing support to those questioning the legality of road-widening proposals along the Bijarim Ro on Jeju Island (with NM invited as an expert witness for a court case held in early December 2022; and the case to be examined again at the end of February 2023); and to support efforts being made to conserve internationally important wetland remaining within the Saemangeum reclamation area, which before sea wall closure in 2006 was widely understood to be the most important shorebird site in the ROK, while also supporting ~40,000 local fishers and shell-fishers. We will also continue to try to draw attention to threats posed by poorly-placed wind-farms, and seek advice on how such threats can be reduced.

Ever-expanding wind-farm, Taebaek City. What research was done before building this wind-farm? Was there any kind of EIA? Is there any kind of monitoring to assess whether there is an issue with birds striking blades? What about for offshore wind-farms: what criteria will be used to assess whether an area is suitable or not? Who will monitor impacts? And if impacts are found, what modifications will be made?

We hope too to hold more meetings for members, with a mix of birding and discussion at key sites, including in Goseong County in Gangwon near the inner border of Korea. And of course, we will also continue to update online materials, including the Birds Korea Checklist and eBird materials. We welcome your support in any or all of this work – through fieldwork, writing, drawing, or through providing financial, technical or legal support – whatever your strength is. Thank you.

For now, if you are interested to understand more about why we work in the way that we do (and perhaps how you can contribute), please do read on….

The Context of Our work

The Republic of Korea (ROK) is one of the world’s most industrialised and densely-populated nations, with approximately 51 million people living at a density of c. 515-520 people per square kilometer.  The vast majority of us live in the 30-40% of land that is low-lying. These same low-lying areas are also home to the vast majority of the ROK’s waterbirds and to the majority of the nation’s threatened bird-life. Most of the remaining national land is re-forested hills and mountains.  Already, most lowland areas are either built on or are used for growing rice or e.g., vegetables often in vinyl houses or under plastic sheeting.  Despite the intensity of agricultural effort and decades of large-scale reclamation of tidal flats (primarily, according to national law, to create more agricultural land), the national food self-sufficiency rate was estimated at only 45.8 percent in 2019 according to the Korea Times / Yonhap News (October 2020), with imports of food and fossil fuels largely paid for by exports of manufactured goods.  Problematically, the ROK also has a rapidly ageing and increasingly urban population. In 2017, farmers represented only 5% of the national population; and 38% of these were already aged 65 or above (Cho 2018).

Due to this combination of factors, land prices in low-lying areas are extremely high and there are huge development pressures, including on those areas already known to be especially important for birds and other wildlife. Such areas include all remaining un-protected tidal flats (and some like at Songdo which on paper should already be protected…); and almost all agricultural areas in the CCZ and elsewhere along the inner border area of Korea, as well as in most large reclamation areas, at least once infrastructure has been put in place (at least in some reclamation areas, however, including Saemangeum, demand for land still appears to remain extremely low, probably because of the distance from Seoul / Incheon).

Ongoing large-scale reclamation, Asan Bay (September 2021), even while…
Vast areas of the Saemangeum reclamation area fail to attract investment (December 2019)…
Pressures continue to rise on older reclamation areas, especially those which are close to Seoul. Globally Endangered Oriental Storks Ciconia boyciana at Seosan, January 2023. New bridges, roads and hard-sided drainage channels at Seosan and in other reclamation areas continue to reduce the area and quality of remaining habitat for floodplain specialist species, preparing the way for additional “development”.

In some similarly-developed nations, leading NGOs have had the financial and political capacity to be able to step in, to purchase and then to manage key areas as bird or nature reserves. NGOs in the ROK are too poorly-supported and poorly-funded to do this. Instead, protection or purchase of key sites can only realistically be done by government or by major companies. However, this has not happened yet either for the majority of internationally important sites due to a combination of factors. These include a perceived lack of political support, with opposition to site-conservation often led by local stakeholders who are concerned about the imposition of additional restrictions, and the high cost, compounded by jurisdictional issues between ministries and various level of government. Major business leaders also remain unconvinced of the benefits to them of investing heavily in conservation – perhaps because there is no obvious government support to encourage them to do so?

The weakness of political support in the ROK for conservation is why Birds Korea tries to avoid simple opposition to development proposals. It is why we do not engage in one-day campaigns or protests. Instead, we try to support best decisions and wise use, by doing what we can to highlight existing conservation obligations and propose alternatives which should be able to generate benefits for local communities and build popular support for conservation. In 2022, examples of our approach included working closely with a team of students from UC Berkeley and SAVE International to shape a vision for the Hwaseong Wetlands (as a World Heritage site rather than an international airport) and were involved in a similar initiative for the same wetlands led by WWT and the EAAFP. We also prepared detailed reports and gave presentations highlighting restoration and mitigation measures that could be taken in Yeoncheon County to help maintain biodiversity along the Imjin and Hantan rivers, while providing benefits to local people including the creation of dedicated safe spaces for families and children to learn about the environment. We will of course continue with this kind of approach in 2023, especially in our work for the Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve.

Two English version slides from a presentation given in Korean at a major seminar in Yeoncheon, November 2022

In reality, very few (if any?)  sites in the ROK are currently managed primarily for biodiversity, even if they appear to be fully protected on paper.   By way of example: legislation was passed more than a decade ago that facilitates development even within national parks; and recently-designated World Heritage Sites do not yet include many of the ROK’s most important sites for tidal flat dependent species, with boundaries of sites that have been designated excluding shorebird roost sites. This when the very same shorebird species are explicitly listed as being part of the World Heritage Property’s Outstanding Universal Value. These issues will continue to be at the heart of our input into preparations for Phase 2 of the Getbol Korean tidal flat World Heritage property in 2023.

Geography also has major implications for our work and for conservation more generally in Korea and the wider Eco-region. Approximately 90% of Korea’s bird species are migratory.  At the same time, relationships between several range-states in East Asia (including the ROK, DPR Korea, PR China, Russian Federation and Japan) are greatly complicated by tensions between nations, both historical and potential. Terrible conflict on the Korean Peninsula did result in the inadvertent establishment of the wildlife-rich Korean DMZ and adjacent CCZ. However, it also means that cooperation between the ROK and the DPRK in conserving biodiversity in the DMZ and inner border of Korea is currently not possible.  Moreover, recent decisions have been taken to further reduce restrictions on “development” currently provided by the CCZ.  This will have devastating impacts on wintering Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes, unless substantial areas are bought up by central government or industry, to be farmed by local people in ways that can help to conserve biodiversity.

Everyone working for conservation recognises that the interconnected climate and ecological crises are real, and that industrialised nations like the ROK need urgently to undergo massive economic, social and environmental changes if they are to help head off the worst impacts.  For the ROK, the transition to sustainability as defined by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require an acceptance that the economy has matured, that the population is ageing rapidly, and that there are very real limits to the natural resource base.  In our opinion, to conserve biodiversity and to reach Carbon Zero, in accordance with commitments already made in the National Biodiversity Strategy and to international conventions, the ROK therefore urgently needs to: (1) Strengthen legislation, including Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), so that EIAs fit their purpose, and can help the nation avoid making ecologically-devastating choices (such as the reclamation of Saemangeum, the Four Rivers project and the construction of airports in internationally important wetlands); (2) Give up finally and completely on tidal-flat reclamation; (3) Properly conserve and manage all known internationally important sites;  and (4) Start undertaking large-scale habitat restoration, including of tidal and freshwater wetlands.

The ROK will also need to encourage: (1) A reduction in the use of cars and planes; (2) Organic farming, the consumption of local produce and a reduction in meat consumption; and (3) A rapid shift away from additional uses of fossil fuels, through an increase in support for solar, wind and tidal energy – but (again in accordance with the SDGs), only in locations and ways in which biodiversity will not be negatively impacted, and in ways that social and economic inequities can be addressed.  Safely increasing sources of renewable energy therefore also first requires an appropriate and effective EIA process – one that could help the nation to maintain biodiversity, improve the quality of life of local people, and support major industry to become global leaders in the development and export of green technologies.

Sadly, however, in the absence of an effective EIA, the largest threats to birdlife in the ROK in 2023 will still come from policies that will inevitably result in more loss and degradation of key habitats.  Most of these policies and decisions can be grouped coarsely into two overlapping categories. The first category includes perhaps well-intended development aimed at improving access to remote areas, and increasing “green energy” production.  Examples include proposed cable car construction, including in so-called protected areas; construction of wind-farms, as proposed including in bird migration corridors; and ever-expanding roads and walkways along formerly inaccessible stretches of rivers and wetlands, massively increasing disturbance. This kind of development could be rendered much less harmful, through (again) application of an appropriate legally-binding EIA process and more careful planning.

The second set of policies and decisions seem more deeply-rooted in a destructive model of development for development’s sake, and appears to be wholly incompatible with biodiversity conservation or progressing toward Carbon Zero.

This includes lots of new airport construction, either proposed or ongoing.  The ROK already has eight international airports and at least eight additional airports dedicated to national routes, even though most of the mainland can be accessed within three or four hours from Seoul by high-speed train; and there are high-speed ferries to all large islands.  Nonetheless, new airports are planned for Heuksan Island, right next to the Migratory Bird Research Centre; on Ulleung Island in the East Sea; on Baengyeong Island (with construction to start in 2024 or 2025?); and on Gadeokdo, in the outer part of the Nakdong Estuary. This latter proposal remains tied in many ways to Busan City’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo, and in addition to obliterating an existing village, will also include a proposed outer ring road through the estuary proper – a national Wetland Protected Area.

Two additional Ramsar-defined internationally important wetlands are also threatened by airbase relocation and / or airport expansion. These are the most important remaining bird habitat within the Saemangeum reclamation area (threatened primarily by extension of a USA air base); and airbase re-location or construction of a newly proposed “Gyeonggi International Airport” within the Hwaseong Wetlands.

In addition to constant river-works, continuing industrialization of agriculture, including the concreting of soft-edged drainage channels in rice-fields, also seems to be a hangover from this same mindset.  

Rice-fields, Imjingak crane habitat, February 2022
Rice-fields, Gimpo, December 2021 (image from Bernhard Seliger / HSF)
Not only in rice-fields: Baengnyeong, April 2022

A robust analysis is required, but it seems highly likely that if all related costs – including from greenhouse gas emissions caused by manufacture, transport and installation of concrete drains as well as from biodiversity loss – are factored in, then such construction would also prove to be both environmentally-destructive and also highly uneconomical.  We will therefore continue to search for ways in which we can somehow encourage the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (and other ministries?) to move on from their present approach – an approach that the data show currently fails to ensure food security, fails to attract young farmers, and fails to conserve biodiversity.

Improved management of agricultural land in the ROK should be a major concern for everybody, of course. In addition to supplying almost half of our food, many of Korea’s threatened species are now wholly dependent on agricultural land for their survival. Remarkable then, that almost no such areas are protected for biodiversity. In 2019, we highlighted the need to buy up and manage agricultural land in the CCZ, and in December 2022, we proposed the establishment of “Key Biodiversity Agricultural Areas” as a way of helping to conserve biodiversity and to diversify local economies, potentially also attracting new farmers. Does this seem like a good way forward, and an approach that you would be willing to get behind too?

Comments from members and those wishing to support our work are most welcome! Thank you.