Dr Nial Moores, Director, Birds Korea / 새와 생명의 터
In celebration of their now 30-year history, the Korean Environment Institute (KEI) and the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements (the nation’s largest environmental NGO) hosted an offline and online seminar in Seoul on June 21st, 2023. The aim was to celebrate progress made over the last 30 years since the foundation of both of these representative organisations; and to look ahead at the next 30 years.
On behalf of Birds Korea, I was invited to be a panel discussant; and like other discussants was requested to provide a 4-page account to include in the Proceedings. Grateful for the opportunity to share insights from our work, there was of course insufficient time or space to provide commentary on the urgent need to define more clearly (and legally) aspects relevant to the environment in Article 35 of the National Constitution; or to examine the ROK’s poor progress in fulfilling the SDGs, especially in relation to the conservation of biodiversity on land; or to discuss targets set in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Instead the focus was on recommending a narrow set of seven actions that could be taken in the short-term to improve conservation opportunities in the ROK based on Birds Korea’s work.
Below follows the Proceedings text of our contribution (with 1 or 2 typos fixed, and supplemented with links and images):
Substantial progress in some aspects of environmental protection has been achieved in the past 30 years in the Republic of Korea (ROK). Today, it is important to recognize this progress; and to acknowledge the many vital contributions made by government bodies, including the KEI, and by NGOs, local communities and media. It is also necessary to talk honestly about the many challenges that remain. There is of course growing scientific consensus that climate breakdown and the global ecological crisis together pose an existential threat to our social and economic systems, with one crisis helping to worsen the other. An urgent conservation response is now needed to avert these crises, to be undertaken by every individual and by every government in the world.
To this background, my aim today is to highlight some of the main challenges for biodiversity conservation in the ROK as I perceive them, and to provide a shortlist of seven recommendations. This input is based on more than 30 years of working for biodiversity conservation in East Asia, including 20 years working for Birds Korea (새와 생명의 터), a small, specialised Korean NGO.
Work for Birds Korea makes clear that effective biodiversity conservation requires much more than government-determined national policies and strategies alone. Conservation instead requires a shift in value systems, with local, national and international concerns often needing to be addressed simultaneously. This is in large part because: (1) the livelihoods and well-being of local communities often depend on the very same natural resource base as depended on by target species; (2) the vast majority of Korean bird species, and several other species groups, are migratory, so that actions in one nation alone will not be sufficient to maintain their populations; and (3) many of the most important habitats and ecosystems in the ROK are part of larger eco-regions which are shared with adjacent nations. The Yellow Sea is one such ecosystem; so too the DMZ and adjacent CCZ.
The National Biodiversity Strategy (2019-2023)
In the ROK, contemporary national policies and actions for biodiversity conservation are set out in the legally-binding Fourth National Biodiversity Strategy (2019-2023) (from here-on, ROK 2018) – a document that we assume is currently being updated. ROK (2018) aims to “mainstream” biodiversity as part of national commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). However, ROK (2018) appears to be remarkably top-down. It lacks clearly acknowledged input from NGOs or independent academic institutions; and it does not propose many mechanisms to help empower conservation work being done by those outside government. ROK (2018) also does little to link biodiversity conservation to other SDGs or to existing international agreements, and instead seems more focused on increasing sovereignty over, and utilisation of, the nation’s natural resources (“as acquisition of proprietary biological resources is directly connected to national competitiveness”: ROK 2018). The approach in ROK (2018) is therefore radically different to that taken by some other nations. The Australian National Biodiversity Strategy document, for example, is an argument for biodiversity conservation aimed at the general public; it links actions and targets explicitly to the SDGs; and it provides a list of existing international commitments, including the Ramsar Convention, that can be used to help guide national actions. The resultant vision calls for Australian Nature that is, “healthy and resilient to threats, understood, and valued both in its own right and for its essential contribution to our health, wellbeing, prosperity, and quality of life” (Australia 2019).
Effective strategies for biodiversity need to be founded on good science. Robust data are essential, for example, in establishing a baseline on biodiversity, against which progress can be measured. For example, Targets 5 and 12 of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020) call for, “the rate of loss of all natural habitats (…to be) at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero” and for “the conservation status (of threatened species), particularly of those most in decline, (…to be) improved and sustained”. Both Targets assume a robust, scientific baseline. However, neither ROK (2014) nor ROK (2018) provide a clear baseline on population trends of threatened species, and only provide simple percentages to suggest changes in area, though not in quality, of a few habitat types (ROK 2018, p. 7). Similarly, rather few population estimates or population trends – even of high profile species – appear to have been published by government research institutes. For example, NIBR (2019) provides an assessment of only 95 bird species in total. None of the accounts provide national population estimates or details on habitat change.
This chronic weakness in the scientific baseline on biodiversity seems strangely at odds with ROK’s outstanding research capacity and technological prowess. Baseline information needed to inform the next National Strategy (presumably covering 2024-2028) should be quite easy to generate, as demonstrated by Birds Korea’s own research (presented below). If needed, more support could also be given now to NGOs and independent researchers to help with research; and published data from other sources could also be used, as part of mainstreaming. For example, Borzée et al. (2018) provide substantial detail on the declining populations of the Suweon Tree Frog Dryophytes suweonensis in the ROK; Kim et al. (2021) review population trends in the ROK of 52 “common” bird species; and BirdLife International (2023) provide text accounts for all species that have been recorded in the ROK (and globally). In the case of habitat change, Murray et al. (2014) and IUCN (2023) provide details on area of ROK tidal flat and on rate of loss which are detailed, transparent and already widely-cited in peer-reviewed literature.
Research by Birds Korea
Based on our own research and on published data from inside the ROK and regionally, Birds Korea was able to publish an assessment of all 365 species of bird considered in 2014 to occur regularly in the ROK (Moores et al. 2014). A coarse population estimate is provided for every species in the form of abundance bands; and every species is ascribed to one of four colour categories (Grey, Red, Amber or Green) to indicate their national conservation status and population trend. This report, modelled on similar reports produced in the UK and throughout the EU, was designed in ways that allow every species’ status assessment to be reviewed, and easily updated. In 2022, the Birds Korea Checklist was therefore able to identify 43% of the ROK’s regularly occurring bird species as having a poor or very poor national conservation status, and to identify five bird species lost to the ROK this century (Moores & Ha 2022).
In spite of the lack of robust data on habitat loss and degradation, our research also suggests that central and local governments (and not private citizens or industry) are in large part responsible for recent declines in biodiversity in the ROK. These declines have been driven for example by the reclamation of intertidal wetlands; by the extensive degradation of riverine wetlands caused by the Four Rivers Project and subsequent river-works; by the industrialization of agriculture, including the concreting of soft-banked drainage channels; and by hundreds of major infrastructural projects, including road-building and the construction of new cities.
Even now, central and local governments are proposing the construction of new airports in sensitive habitats on Jeju Island, on Gadeok Do in Busan and on Baengnyeong Island, as well as in Ramsar-defined internationally important wetlands in Hwaseong and in Saemangeum.
A major shift in the development model pursued by government in the ROK is urgently required, before either the current rate of loss of biodiversity or national greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.
Many of the challenges for biodiversity conservation in the ROK were made especially apparent through our work for Saemangeum in the 2000s and on Jeju Island from 2019-2022. These two projects, together with similar issues at many other sites, provide much of the basis for the recommendations that follow.
In 2003-2005, we identified at least 27 species of waterbird then supported by the Saemangeum Estuarine System in Ramsar-defined internationally important concentrations of 1% or more of a population. Several of these species were assessed as nationally or globally threatened. Their presence was well-documented by other research projects, including by the Ministry of Environment. However, even though the ROK had publicly committed to maintaining waterbird populations and conserving internationally important wetlands through accession to the Ramsar Convention in the late 1990s, closure of the Saemangeum seawall was completed in April 2006. Assertions were made by development proponents, including to the Ramsar Secretariat, that birds would not be impacted by the reclamation, because they would simply relocate to adjacent wetlands. Together with researchers from Australia, we therefore conducted the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program between 2006 and 2008. We confirmed that shorebirds did not relocate from Saemangeum to adjacent wetlands. Instead, we identified a rapid local and national decline in many species, and a global decline in the Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris.
Slide from presentation to the Intecol presentation, September 2016, Chiangsu, PR China .
As a direct consequence of the Saemangeum reclamation, the Great Knot was therefore reassessed by the IUCN and BirdLife International as Globally Endangered. Soon after, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea was reassessed as Critically Endangered (BirdLife International 2012, 2023; Mackinnon et al. 2012). The results of our research were subsequently echoed by government researchers working within the Ministry of Environment (Lee et al. 2017). In spite of this, no attempt has been made to restore tidal flow to remaining wetland area. Instead, central and local government currently support the expansion of an existing air base in these wetlands, even though this requires the destruction of breeding habitat used by large numbers of nationally threatened Saunders’s Gulls Chroicocephalus saundersi and Little Terns Sternula albifrons.
In a similar way, research conducted under contract from the Jeju local government in 2019 and 2020 determined that a road-widening project along the Bijarim Ro would negatively impact habitat which supports several nationally and / or globally threatened species; and several species designated as National Natural Monuments. Although the original Environmental Impact Assessment was shown by this research to be deeply flawed (Moores 2019a, 2019b), and even though Jeju Special Self-governing Province (2022) concluded that no effective mitigation measures could be taken for species like Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha, a local court ruled in early 2023 that there was no legal basis for cancelling the road-widening proposal.
Based on the above, seven recommendations follow:
- National population estimates and species trends for as many species as possible, together with assessments of changes in area and quality of habitats, need to be published as soon as possible, in order to provide a scientific baseline for the next National Strategy and to assess the success of policies and actions;
- The meaning of Nationally Threatened Class 1 and Class 2 Species needs to be clearly defined, and legally-binding guidance provided on what level of biodiversity loss caused by a development project is acceptable, i.e., the loss to a site or to the nation of how many individuals of how many Class 1 and Class 2 species is legally acceptable?
- Mechanisms are needed to enable local communities and NGOs to review development proposals and their likely impacts on biodiversity and livelihoods, before such projects receive substantial funding or government promotion;
- Legally-binding mechanisms are required to enable the cancellation of major development projects whether before, during or after construction – if unacceptable levels of harm to biodiversity are either likely or are proven to have occurred;
- A consistent and transparent system of substantial penalties is required, to penalize inadequate Environmental Impact Assessments and developments that are shown to have caused unacceptable declines in biodiversity. All monies raised in this way should then be used to help buy land or waters for conservation, to compensate local communities as needed, and to support large-scale restoration of the affected ecosystem;
- Increased attention needs to be given to the conservation of biodiversity within agricultural landscapes, especially in rice-field areas in the CCZ and in reclamation areas, as many wetland species now depend on such areas. As such, a mechanism is required so that Protected Areas in agricultural areas can e.g., include land still undergoing reclamation (as in Hwaseong and Saemangeum), in addition to artificial wetland and land already created through the reclamation process;
- The next National Strategy should avoid promoting increased utilization of natural resources. Instead, it should aim to be more inclusive, and highlight linkages between the Strategy, the SDGs, and existing international commitments to conservation, so that national decision-making can be better supported by regional and global conservation frameworks.
Australia. 2019. Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2019–2030, Commonwealth of Australia 2019. Accessed in June 2023 at: https://www.cbd.int/doc/world/au/au-nbsap-v3-en.pdf
BirdLife International. 2023. IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org on 15/06/2023.
Borzée, A., Andersen, D., Jang Y. 2018. Population trend inferred from aural surveys for calling anurans in Korea. PeerJ 6:e5568 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5568
IUCN. 2023. The 2023 IUCN Situation Analysis on Ecosystems of the Yellow Sea with Particular Reference to Intertidal and Associated Coastal Habitats.
Jeju Special Self-governing Province. 2022. 비자림로(대천~송당) 확포장공사 협의내용 및 환경저감대책 이행계획.
Kim H-K., Mo Y-W., Choi C-Y., McComb, B. C. & Betts, M. G. 2021. Front. Ecol. Evol., 29 March 2021 Sec. Conservation and Restoration Ecology Vol. 9 – 2021
Lee J-K., Chung O-S., Park J-Y., Kim H-J. & Hur W-H. 2017. Effects of the Saemangeum Reclamation Project on migratory shorebird staging in the Saemangeum and Geum Estuaries, South Korea. Bird Conservation International , Volume 28 , Issue 2 , June 2018 , pp. 238 – 250.
MacKinnon, J., VerKuil, Y. I. and Murray, N. (2012) IUCN situation analysis on East and Southeast Asian intertidal habitats, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea (including the Bohai Sea). Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN. (Occasional Paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission No. 47).
Moores, N. 2019a. Report of the Independent Bird Survey, Bijarim Ro, Jeju, June 2019. Produced by Birds Korea, Busan, Republic of Korea.
Moores, N. 2019b. Bird survey. 비자림로(대천~송당) 확․포장공사 소규모 환경영향평가
협의 내용 이행에 따른 조사 용역 중 간 보 고 서.
Moores, N. & Ha J-M. 2022. The Birds Korea Checklist (2022). An annotated list of all bird taxa recorded in the Republic of Korea. Accessed in June 2023 at: https://www.birdskoreablog.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/2022-Birds-Korea-Checklist-ENG.pdf
Moores, N., Kim, A. & R. Kim. 2014. Status of Birds, 2014. Birds Korea report on Bird Population Trends and Conservation Status in the Republic of Korea. Published by Birds Korea, September 2014.
Moores, N., Rogers, D.I., Rogers, K. and Hansbro, P.M. 2016. Reclamation of tidal ﬂats and shorebird declines in Saemangeum and elsewhere in the Republic of Korea. Emu, 116, 2: 136-146. Published by CSIRO. http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/MU16006
Murray, N.J., Clemens, R.S., Phinn, S.R., Possingham, H.P. & Fuller, R.A. 2014. Tracking the rapid loss of tidal wetlands in the Yellow Sea. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 267–272, doi:10.1890/130260
NIBR. 2019. Red Data Book Republic of Korea. Volume 1: Birds. Published by the National Institute of Biological Resources, Ministry of Environment, Republic of Korea. ISBN: 11-1480592-001649-01
ROK. 2014. Fifth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Accessed on the CBD website.
ROK. 2018. The Republic of Korea’s Fourth National Biodiversity Strategy 2019 – 2023. November 2018 Accessed in June 2023 at: https://www.cbd.int/doc/world/kr/kr-nbsap-v4-en.pdf
Mok J. & Jay, S. 2021. Creating Added Value for Korea’s Tidal Flats: Using Blue Carbon as an Incentive for Coastal Conservation. KMI International Journal of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Volume 13 Issue 2 December 2021. pp. 001-018.