Breathing life into degraded landscapes with trees: Restoration in Korea, South Africa and Ethiopia

Large-scale Forest Restoration in Korea. Photo courtesy of Korea Forest Service

Large-scale Forest Restoration in Korea. Photo courtesy of Korea Forest Service


South Korea, South Africa and Ethiopia are among the many countries around the world that have successfully used or are now applying the power of trees to restore degraded landscapes and bring back life-giving ecosystem services and biodiversity.

The audience at Tree Diversity Day 2014 got insights into the efforts of these countries, and learned that landscape restoration is hard work that needs long-term commitment, spanning the breath of the populace—from the highest levels of government to grassroots communities.

South Korea

Fifty years ago the Republic of Korea, emerging from a period of colonial occupation (1910 to 1945), and the Korean War (1950 to 1953), embarked on the Forest Rehabilitation Project in 1973, having put down the institutional infrastructure— including the Korea Forest Service—in the 1960s.

“If you love your country, plant trees!” PARK, Chung Hee, Korea’s president at the time, would proclaim.

The plan to green Korea’s landscapes took priority over all other government policies, and was implemented in line with the traditional Saemael Undong (New Village Movement) model.

Fascinatingly, “more than one million hectares of denuded forest were restored with fast-growing tree species through public participation and strong political support.”

Mr. CHOI Youngtae, Director International Cooperation Division at Korea Forest Service told the audience at Tree Diversity Day 2014 that “the transformation did not come easy.” There were many challenges to overcome, including lack of scientific knowledge, lack of financial and human resources, and lack of policies and awareness.

“People’s determination, human hands and strength regreened Korea—CHOI Youngtae,”

CHOI, Youngtae is the Director of the International Cooperation Division of Korea Forest Service. Photo by ICRAF/Daisy Ouya

CHOI, Youngtae is the Director of the International Cooperation Division of Korea Forest Service. Photo by ICRAF/Daisy Ouya

But through people’s determination, human hands and strength, Korea’s landscape became green once again. The work involved people building trenches by hand, carrying manure up steep hillsides on villager’s backs, and well organized weeding and watering of the tree seedlings. The government established seedling systems throughout the fledgling republic.

Shortages of financial and human resources were addressed through an emphasis on short-term gains in income and welfare; financial subsidies and access to resources; and reinvestment of a portion of the gains throughout the project.

Gaps in policies and awareness among the populace were tackled with strong, clear laws and regulations developed with participation of villagers; top-down and bottom-up planning with emphasis on cooperation; and the government capitalising on an existing long tradition of village cooperation.

Watch: Korea’s Young-il forest erosion control project

Once the hillsides were covered in trees, the once-common natural disasters such as floods, droughts, loss of crops, and lack of fuel became a thing of the past. Korea today enjoys a value of 103 billion US dollars per year from its forests, in ecosystem services and products, said Mr Choi.

So important are trees to the Korean culture, the country has designated as Protected Trees in Korea 11,573 “old, big, or rare trees” (also called nurse-trees). These are considered a national heritage and treasure to pass on to future generations.

Korea is now launching the Forest Ecosystem Restoration Initiative (FERI) at the CBD COP 12 in Pyeongchang. This initiative will support developing countries in their restoration initiatives. FERI envisions the world returning to its original forest cover before the mass deforestation events of the industrial and colonial eras. FERI will, in this way, contribute to Aichi Biodiversity Targets 5, 11, and 15.

South Africa

In South Africa, geographically, climatically and socially very different from Korea, efforts are underway to rehabilitate landscapes and restore tree diversity.Christo Marais, Chief, Directorate of Natural Resource Management at the Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa, gave a compelling talk on his country’s experience.

Planting Spekboom in medium degraded landscapes in South Africa

Planting Spekboom in a degraded landscape in South Africa

Alien plant invasions are a particular threat to South Africa, affecting around 19 million hectares of land. This degradation reduces the productive potential of land, curtails ecotourism and limits available energy sources and building materials.It has negative impacts on the carbon balance, and animal biodiversity—from rhinos to dragonflies. Riparian land degradation jeoperdizes water security, too, especially for people living downstream who depend on rainwater runoff, said Marais.

The South African government is working to restore degraded environments throughout the country, using various initiatives. These include the ‘Sub Tropical Thicket Restoration Programme’, where people in savannas clear and stack invasive-species bush vegetation to allow the original grass cover to recover. They also plant a native succulent, ‘spekboom’ (Portulacaria afra or elephant bush), in degraded landscapes.

‘Working for Forests’ is another South African initiative for landscape restoration. The programme seeks to move landscapes ridden with invasive alien species towards a diversity of well selected non-invasives.

There are also major government-led Riparian Zone Restoration projects underway, which now
employ around 50,000 people. These aim to restore healthy riparian thicket by planting indigenous Acacia, Olea and Rhus species so healthy undergrowth returns to river banks.


In Ethiopia, a regreening initiative aims to reforest 15 million hectares of land, including agroforestry on croplands. This will contribute to “an agriculturally productive, economically strong, and environmentally robust Ethiopia,” the government’s vision. Ethiopia is one of the focus countries of the ICRAF-led Trees for Food Security project .

Watch: Regreening Ethiopia’s Highlands: A New Hope for Africa

Tesfaye Awas, National Coordinator of the Medicinal Plant Unit at the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, brought Tree Diversity Day audiences up to speed with a new multi-faceted GEF-funded project on ‘Capacity Building for Access and Benefit Sharing and Conservation and Sustainable Use of Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia,’

These and many other countries’ bold projects at landscape restoration show a growing consciousness that with political will and appropriate investments by governments, and hard and often manual work by many people, trees can bring degraded landscapes back to life.

See photos of presenters and participants

Download presentations:

CHOI Youngtae

Christo Marais

Tesfaye Awas: Ethiopia Medicinal plants

Misikire Tessema – Ethiopia

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

You may also like...