Homepage article February 2014
What Has Really Changed?
Birds Korea, February 2nd 2014

In the ten years since Birds Korea was founded, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has hosted several high-profile international meetings relevant to bird and habitat conservation, including the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the “Wise Use of Wetlands” Ramsar Convention in 2008 and the World Congress Conservation in 2012. Later this year too, the nation will host the 2014 Convention on Biological Diversity COP. This conference, to be held in Gangwon Province in October, will provide national and global leaders with a wonderful opportunity to review the success of existing policies that relate to biodiversity conservation, and to modify these policies in line with existing conservation obligations. During the past decade too, as part of this growing environmental awareness, we have seen the construction of several eco-centres and countless “eco-parks”, and we have read multiple public statements committing our nation to greater sustainability and the New Green Deal. As the years have passed, illegal hunting has become, more or less, a thing of the past (it is certainly at present not a major threat to most bird populations) and many of the nation’s replanted forests have continued to mature. There has also been a positive growth in the number of people going birdwatching.

On the surface, there has been tremendous progress in bird and biodiversity conservation in the past decade. This has only been made possible by the combined efforts of many people and organisations, both governmental and non-governmental. And yet despite these changes for the good, how deep has this change really been?

Bird Declines

While public attitudes in the ROK towards conservation have improved greatly, many bird species are still in decline. Analysis and interpretation of these declines will be at the heart of a special Birds Korea report we aim to produce in time for the October COP. These declines in themselves are cause for concern. They also indicate a decline in the health and productivity of the natural environment and that the present development model is unsustainable.

Our research indicates that the declines in some species have been long-term and gradual, likely caused by a combination of habitat degradation and loss, pollution, climate change, and increased pressures both inside and outside of the ROK. In some other species, however, the declines have been more dramatic and have accelerated during the past decade. Several are the result – in large part – of recent massive habitat loss, caused either by the seemingly endless construction boom, the ecologically disastrous Four Rivers project (2009-2012) or tidal-flat reclamation. Between 2004 and 2012, we have seen the area of arable land available for agriculture decrease by 44,000ha (Trading Economics 2014). This is land under cultivation, depended on by some bird species as well by farmers, lost to yet more new towns and new cities, new roads and new airports. Sustaining both agricultural production and a similar rate of urban expansion would require ‘new land’ at the rate of an additional Saemangeum every five years or so. Even ignoring the massive environmental and social impacts and the increasing levels of building vacancy, this development model cannot continue for long into the future. The ROK is already dependent on food imports, undermining future national food security (Park et al. 2011). We have also already lost over 75% of our tidal-flat area to reclamation, leading to declines in domestic fisheries. By 2010, only ~110,000ha of tidal-flats still remained nationwide (Birds Korea 2010).

In recent years too we have witnessed hundreds of kilometres of rivers deep-dredged and adjacent habitats bulldozed and “cleaned” into sterile eco-parks. And, unsurprisingly, we have also seen a large decline in the number of waterbirds wintering here. Since the start of the Four Rivers project, the number of Geese, Ducks and Swans that depend upon these same habitats have halved from 1,675,000 in 2009 to 815,790 in 2013 (MOE 2009, 2013).

During the past decade too, the ROK formally committed itself to permitting no more large-scale reclamation (Ramsar Resolution X.22). All the same in the past decade alone we have witnessed the closing of the Saemangeum seawall (2006); the loss of most of Namyang Bay (also in 2006), much of Asan Bay; and many of the tidal-flats at Song Do in Incheon. And even now, in 2014, additional areas of tidal-flat at Song Do are still being reclaimed. Smaller sites like the Mokpo Namhang Urban wetland for which we have been working for so many years have also not been spared.

Unsurprisingly, reclamation of many of the nation’s internationally important tidal-flats has resulted in massive declines since 2004 in several shorebird species (from the now Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus to the now globally Vulnerable Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris and globally Near-threatened Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa). The recent sharp declines in these shorebird species in turn indicate a wider decline in natural productivity and biodiversity within tidal-flats and inshore waters.

As noted in an expert report commissioned by the IUCN in 2012, here in the Yellow Sea Eco-region “Fisheries and vital ecological services are collapsing and ecological disasters increasing, with concomitant implications for human livelihoods. Observed rates of declines of waterbird species of 5–9% per year (and up to 26% per year for Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) are among the highest of any ecological system on the planet” (Mackinnon et al. 2012).

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development, as set out in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, has three pillars: environmental, social and economic. In addition to declines in bird species and fisheries, there is already plentiful evidence from within the ROK and elsewhere that large-scale reclamation has caused massive social impacts on local coastal communities and on traditional culture. Evidence has also grown during the decade that recent large-scale reclamation is failing to fulfil economic expectations. Many of the Free Economic Zones (FEZ) set up in large-scale reclamation areas, as at Saemangeum, Pyeongtaek and Song Do, have failed to attract much Direct Overseas Investment. And in 2012, as reported by The Korea Herald, “Incheon, which hosts the nation’s No. 1 FEZ…is in severe financial trouble. Fiscal difficulties stemming from lavish projects have stopped Incheon from pushing ahead with large construction and international events. [...] Presently, Incheon Metropolitan Government is mired in debt, with its amount marking 2.7 trillion won” (approximately 2.7 billion USD) (Chun 2012).

How can reclamation of internationally important wetlands that results in declines in biodiversity, loss of local culture and livelihood and which fails to benefit the nation economically ever be considered “sustainable development”? And why is reclamation permitted to continue even after formal national commitments to prevent it?

Ramsar Sites

There has been some positive progress during the past decade in the number of Ramsar sites that have been designated in the ROK. Although less than five percent of the coastline is currently protected under national law (MacKinnon et al. 2012), the number of Ramsar sites in the ROK has increased from just two in 2004 to 18 in 2014, with several of these in the coastal zone. The area designated as Ramsar site has also increased from 960ha to 17,704ha during this time. However, while we applaud this increase in Ramsar site designation, the ROK still ranks about 136th among Ramsar nations in area designated, and lowest among the 15 strongest economies in the world. Moreover, several wetlands that have been designated as Ramsar sites (including Upo Wetland and Suncheon Bay) have become increasingly degraded in recent years, with a resultant decline in some sensitive bird species. And a few Ramsar sites that have successfully maintained their ecological character since designation are still threatened.

The Geum Estuary, for example, is now the nation’s most important shorebird site after seawall close at Saemangeum. The estuary was targeted for reclamation, but the plan was cancelled in 2007; and much of the northern side of estuary was instead designated as the Seocheon Tidal Flat Ramsar site in 2009. We believe that the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program which we conducted in partnership with the Australasian Wader Studies Group (2006-2008) was a major factor in proving the international importance of this site and in influencing its conservation. The tidal-flats in the Geum Estuary are now famous nationwide, due largely to the efforts of the local government. Seocheon County was even selected to house the new National Ecological Institute, which formally opened at the end of 2013. All the same, a map of the Geum Estuary published in late 2013 again shows much of the area as targeted for reclamation – affecting much of the Ramsar site.

Poultry Flu

During the past decade too, there have been numerous outbreaks of disease in poultry, including the new “H5N8” outbreak in January 2014. Back in 2005 and 2006, Birds Korea worked hard to challenge inaccurate and irresponsible claims in media that wild migratory birds were responsible for spreading Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1. We were proved right.

To improve our own understanding, we first took the time to read scientific literature, to learn from independent experts and to participate in an emergency mission set up by the Food and Agriculture Organisation to investigate the outbreaks centred at poultry farms in Jeollabuk Province. The evidence from this research was as clear then as it is now. Highly Pathogenic strains of Avian Influenza are in almost all cases caused by the conditions in which poultry are held: it is not wild birds but the movement of poultry and farm workers that is most responsible for the spread of the disease. Through the years, we have shared this information freely and we have also tried to encourage others (unsuccessfully up to now) to stop using the overly-broad term “bird flu” and to use the more appropriate term “Poultry Flu” instead. It is first and foremost a devastating disease of poultry and the poultry industry.

Despite the global expert consensus on the usual cause and spread of Poultry Flu and on the best ways to respond, little seems to have been learned domestically during the past decade. In January this year, the outbreak of HPAI H5N8 was first detected on a poultry farm but was again blamed immediately on wild birds, especially Baikal Teal Anas formosa. There has been very little, if any, public opportunity this time either to rebuke unscientific statements or to question the methods to try to control spread of the disease.

As in 2006, we again need to ask now, if wild birds are the source and the cause of spread:

  1. How did they infect poultry held in an apparently bio-secure poultry farm?
  2. How did they then move from one farm to another to also spread the virus there?
  3. Why did the outbreaks not start earlier? Baikal Teal and other waterbirds start arriving here for the winter in September.
  4. Why is this strain of poultry flu still confined to only a few areas in the ROK? Migratory waterbirds can move throughout the country; and many migrate through Korea onto Japan and China. Why are there no similar outbreaks in Japan or China?

Moreover, we have yet to see public statements on the scale and potential role of live poultry imports to the ROK (which increased in value from five million USD in 2005 to 20 million USD in 2012: United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database 2014). And there has been no explanation we are aware of that explains how spraying disinfectant directly onto wild birds and into wetlands will kill the virus. If you believe that wild birds are responsible for spreading the disease, why cause them to move from preferred wetlands to new areas through spraying and other security measures?

We therefore urge our members to read and share this Expert Position Statement, released on January 28th 2014. It is written by a specialised AI Task Force convened under the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the United Nations Environmental Program and the intergovernmental Convention on Migratory Species. This is the science on the disease, not the myth.

It is clear that the past ten years have been a decade of change: some of it good, some of it bad. It is also clear that organisations like Birds Korea have an increasingly important role to play in research, planning and in public awareness and education. We work for the benefit of the birds and the nation.

Now approaching our tenth anniversary as an organisation, in 2014 and beyond we will continue to choose science over anger, and honesty and compassion over fear and greed. And we will continue our efforts to support best conservation practice and the best policies for genuinely sustainable development. Please join us.