Speakers at the world’s largest gathering of forestry stakeholders in Seoul have stressed immediate action to curb deforestation and restore nature, saying time was running out to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
Global cooperation and a sustainable future were some of the most frequently mentioned concepts by representatives of governments, academia, civil society, international organizations and private businesses at the 15th World Forestry Congress (WFC) held in Coex, Gangnam District, southern Seoul.
The Korea Forest Service (KFS), who hosted and co-organized the conference along with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said some 12,500 people from 144 countries registered for the week-long event, where participants are expected to address the most urgent issues facing worldwide forests through Friday.
The conference was initially planned to take place in 2021, but got postponed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s Korea’s first time being chosen as the host. The last time the WFC was convened in the Asia-Pacific region was 44 years ago in Indonesia.
In his last message to an international audience before finishing his five-year term next week, President Moon Jae-in said during the opening ceremony Monday that Korea was bound to actively participate in international efforts to protect forests based on its own restoration experiences following the 1950-53 Korean War.
“Koreans have personally experienced the pain of deforestation through [Japan’s] colonial rule [1910-1945] and the [Korean] War,” Moon said in his keynote speech. “Looking at the devastated land [after the war], we realized how much of an important [role] forests played in our lives, so all our people planted more than 10 billion trees and turned our mountains and fields green again.”
Moon added, “The FAO noted Korea was the only nation that succeeded in reforestation following World War II.”
The outgoing president made no mention of North Korea during his 10-minute speech, drawing a stark contrast from his past public remarks on the environment, through which he occasionally emphasized inter-Korean cooperation in the forestry sector.
Forestry cooperation was among several agreements between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their Pyongyang summit in November 2018. As Moon was addressing the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, last November, he vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the Korean peninsula through forestry cooperation between the North.
Moon’s distancing from Pyongyang Monday reflected his refusal to answer a question asking about his assessment of Kim during a recent interview with the local broadcaster JTBC. In the exclusive interview, which aired on April 26, Moon said he didn’t want to assess Kim, saying it wasn’t the “proper” time to do so.
When the JTBC interviewer pointed out that Moon talked positively about his North Korean counterpart in the past, the Blue House chief replied, “Back then, we were good dialogue partners. [But] now, North Korea launched an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile]; this is crossing the red line.”
In opening remarks, KFS Minister Choi Byeong-am, host of the WFC, underscored the need for global collaboration in tackling a life-threatening climate crisis facing humanity today, saying forest restoration and sustainable development were critical tasks of our time.
In a video message to the Congress, UN Deputy Secretary General Amina J. Mohammed, speaking on behalf of UN Secretary General António Guterres, pointed out that the world had lost 4.7 million hectares of forests per year over the past decade. To reverse the trend, Mohammed suggested the international community better recognize and act on the value of forests, increase financial support to protect trees, support indigenous groups and develop “deforestation-free supply chains.”
Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan weighed in, saying in opening remarks that the world must adopt a long-term perspective to create “green pathways” and make tangible steps to achieve the SDGs within the next eight years.
“We do not have the luxury of time,” said Basma, an FAO goodwill ambassador, “but what we do have is the opportunity to make change.”
Magdalena Jovanovic, president of the International Forestry Students’ Association, urged the international community to include voices of the young in discussions, saying students should be offered the opportunity to express their views and provide their input.
Qu Dongyu, director general of the FAO, said forests must be a main part of climate change adaptation strategies going forward, emphasizing the need to “end practices that jeopardize our forests” and ensure that forestation measures are more inclusive, resilient and sustainable.
In the remainder of the week-long Congress, participants are scheduled to discuss financing plans for forests, green energy, the contribution of forests to sustainable development, sustainable pathways for building a green future, biodiversity conversation, reversing deforestation and forest degradation trends as well as managing and communicating forest information, data and knowledge.