Homepage article December 2011
Our Declining Biodiversity:
Evidence of Unsustainable Development

The Republic of Korea (ROK) has grown into one of the world’s richest nations. In 2010, following decades of hard work and self-sacrifice, our nation was ranked as the world’s 15th largest economy by the International Monetary Fund. GDP is forecast to grow more than 3.5% in 2012. This growth and development is truly remarkable considering the poor economic health of many nations, but is it truly sustainable?

As noted many times before by the United Nations, by governments and by conservation experts, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) provide a clear definition and an agreed set of Goals and Targets for sustainable development at the national and global level. The MDG contain eight interrelated main Goals (see: Millennium Development Goals). Improvements towards one Goal lead to improvements in another, and vice versa.  These eight main Goals are subdivided into Targets that provide clear and objective time-frames and benchmarks of success. These include Targets 7.A (largely relating to climate change) and 7.B (focused on biodiversity), both within the main Goal of Environmental Sustainability.

As an organization dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats, Birds Korea is most focused on Target 7.B. Target 7.B calls for a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss. We focus on this target in the understanding that conservation of biodiversity is a moral obligation and is essential to the maintenance of ecosystem functions. These functions include the maintenance of a healthy global Water Cycle and a healthy atmosphere. As all things are interconnected, actions taken to meet one Target (e.g. a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions) should support actions taken towards a different Target (e.g. a reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss). The MDG thus help to make clear that sustainable development is a holistic and consistent approach to conserving the natural environment that simultaneously improves the quality of human life. And as part of this, biodiversity conservation success or failure tells us objectively and without political bias whether a development model is genuinely sustainable or not.

Regrettably, the evidence from the ROK is clear: biodiversity, including avian biodiversity, is in decline. An analysis of historical bird status in the ROK between 1910 and 2009 reveals that more than a third of regularly-occurring bird species declined substantially during the past century, including at least 24 out of the 50 species of global conservation concern regularly recorded here.  Only three out of these 50 globally Threatened or Near Threatened bird species showed any evidence of increase during the same period (Moores 2011).  Of greater concern, rates of decline appear to be increasing.  A report published by the National Institute of Biological Resources (NIBR 2011) includes count data on 20 widespread bird species from 406 randomly-selected study areas.  Some of these species have been counted regularly since the mid-1990s and others since the early-2000s. Our analysis of these data shows that 15 out of 20 widespread bird species are at present declining rapidly and only three species have increased.  The largest declines have been in several species of duck (including an 81% decline in Mallard Anas platyrhynchos over 15 years), but have also included declines of 57% in Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis over 16 years; 49% in Tree Sparrow Passer montanus and 47% in Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus over 15 years; and 33% in Eurasian Magpie Pica pica and 27% in Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica over only 11 years. Thus, several of the most numerous and well-known bird species found in agricultural land, wetlands and forests are now in rapid decline.  Based on other published and unpublished data, many scarce and more easily-disturbed species are also in rapid decline.  It is therefore straightforward to conclude that development in these different habitats and at the national level is unsustainable.

Globally, five main drivers of biodiversity decline and loss have been identified. These are habitat change, pollution, over-exploitation, invasive alien species and climate change (CBD 2010).  In many cases, these drivers combine to form a dangerous “anthropogenic cocktail” (Travis 2003).  For example, degraded habitats tend to be more susceptible to invasion by alien species than intact ones, and species negatively impacted by habitat loss also tend to be more susceptible to the negative effects of climate change. What are the main drivers of decline here in the ROK?

At the very least, the massive loss and degradation of natural habitat in the ROK should be obvious to every resident and to every visitor: it is only necessary for most of us simply to look out of the window to see it. Importantly, almost every area that was previously known to be especially bird-rich has suffered large-scale degradation and an increase in disturbance during the past decade. These include the nation’s most important shorebird site (the Saemangeum Estuarine System). Since closure of the sea-wall in 2006, shorebird numbers there and nationally have declined rapidly (Moores et al. 2008).  The global conservation status of the now Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus and globally Vulnerable Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris both worsened as a result. Many of the nation’s other most important remaining shorebird sites (Ganghwa, Yeongjong, Song Do, Namyang Bay and Asan Bay) are also either still being reclaimed or are threatened by reclamation and further degradation. These changes will lead to further shorebird and waterbird declines.  By 2010 only c. 110,000ha of intertidal wetland area remained nationwide – probably less than a quarter of the area that existed just a century before.  Most of this loss has occurred in only the past 25 years (Birds Korea 2010). The reclamation process, resulting in the destruction of intertidal wetland, sometimes leads to the temporary creation of freshwater wetland habitats. However, unless conservation laws are strengthened, these areas too become degraded and bird-poor over time.  Reclaimed wetlands in Cheonsu Bay, for example, presently support large numbers of ducks and geese. As such, the wetlands have been designated as one of only five East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) Waterbird Network Sites in the ROK. This same area, however, is now being affected by large-scale road and bridge construction and agricultural intensification

Habitat Change: Road and bridge construction along Seosan Reclamation Lake A, November 2011, Photo © Birds Korea

This development, we predict, will contribute to the decline of several sensitive bird species in this area and probably also to their decline at the national level.  Further inland, right across the nation, dams and river-dredging (some undertaken as part of the Four Rivers project) have also led to massive loss of shallow river habitat, including at the formally “protected” Gumi wetland. This is another of the nation’s five EAAF Waterbird Network Sites.  Based on annual Ministry of Environment Winter Bird Census data this “habitat change” has already resulted in declines in some species at affected sites, as earlier predicted by Moores et al. (2010).

As a nation, can we afford to conduct appropriate research and to conserve key habitats as a core component of Environmental Sustainability? It seems that we should be able to. Funds have already been found for international meetings (such as hosting of the Ramsar COP in 2008 and the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2012), to support the EAAF Partnership office in Incheon, and also since October 2011 to help host a new United Nation’s facility (which aims to help “integrate the three pillars of sustainable development – economic growth, improving the quality of life, and protecting the environment”: UN News Centre 2011). Huge sums of money have also been poured into the construction of massive “nature centres” (including Birdland in Cheonsu Bay, opened in October at a cost of approximately 25 million USD) and the hosting of annual events like the Migratory Bird Festival at the Geum River, both causing greatly increased disturbance and some habitat loss within internationally important wetlands. But despite the huge sums of money that have been spent, where is the investment in habitat conservation?

Money is available for buildings and festivals: Gunsan Migratory Bird Festival, Gunsan, November 2011, Photo © Birds Korea

And what too of the sustainability of the many “green energy” projects which are now being proposed? A new green energy policy is indeed required to meet Target 7.A of the MD Goal of Environment Sustainability. By 2009 we had already become the world’s ninth largest emitter of CO2, with the sixth highest per person emission rate amongst the top 20 emitting nations (UCS 2011).  Moreover, these figures do not account for the decreased national area of forest and especially of intertidal wetland – resulting in greatly reduced capacity for natural carbon sequestration and also in increased greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study published by the World Bank Environment Department found that coastal wetland reclamation typically leads to an additional release into the atmosphere of c. 2,000t CO2 km-2 yr-1 over 50 years, with rates highest in the first decade following wetland drainage (Crooks et al. 2011). The need for carbon-neutral development was raised at the Ministry of Environment’s “International Symposium on Ecological Site Development of Saemangeum” (Seoul, November 24th 2011). But despite the MDG and the science, no recognition is being given to the important role that intertidal wetlands, both within Saemangeum and elsewhere, perform in relation to reducing the nation’s Carbon Footprint.

At present, here and in many parts of the world, “sustainable development” therefore appears largely to mean more construction and infrastructure: a green-washed version of business-as-usual. In October 2010, the national government released plans to invest a further $36.4 billion in new and renewable energy areas between 2011 and 2015 (Wang 2011). Such plans include tidal power plants, which will result in further loss of intertidal wetland, and hence loss of biodiversity, loss of carbon sequestration and the release of more greenhouse gases. How much cheaper and more sustainable would it be to simply conserve and restore intertidal wetlands than to build tidal power plants? There are also proposals to build some of the world’s largest offshore wind-farms off the west coast. To date, there has been almost no research conducted into the potential impacts of these proposed wind-farms on biodiversity, including the likelihood of substantially-increased mortality of some bird species during migration across the Yellow Sea.

Reclamation and huge energy projects as presently proposed here in the ROK cannot be described objectively as sustainable development. They therefore are not in the national or global long-term interest. To achieve genuinely sustainable development, our nation first needs to reduce excessive consumption; conduct appropriate research; cancel bad development projects (measured against social, economic and ecological indicators); strengthen conservation laws; designate genuinely protected areas; and truly integrate economic growth, quality of life, and biodiversity conservation – at home and abroad. Our lives and our livelihoods will depend on it.

Birds Korea, December 2011