April 14, 2006

Massive S.Korean land plan nears end, critics cry foul

By Jack Kim

PUAN, South Korea (Reuters) - Massive earthmovers and
trucks roar as they dump rocks the size of cars into the sea
off South Korea's west coast in a map-altering reclamation
project at the center of a bitter environmental dispute.

The project calls for one of the biggest landfills in
history covering about 155 square miles -- two-thirds the area
of Singapore and more than six times the size of Manhattan.

The South Korean government and the province of North
Cholla where the project is located say it is desperately
needed to breathe life into the declining region of Saemangeum.

The project is aimed at increasing farm land and also parks
that could help spur development in an area with no significant
industry and which is losing people to more advanced parts of
the country.

Conservationists and some residents say the reclamation
project will be a massive environmental disaster that will
destroy fishing assets, kill rare migratory birds and worsen
the water quality of the rivers that feed into the tidal flat.

They say the project was conceived when the South was
having trouble feeding its people after the 1950-53 Korean War
and wanted to increase agricultural production. It has stayed
alive for decades because of sheer bureaucratic inertia and
serves no practical purpose for the country, they say.

But time is running out for them because the government is
closer to shutting the last remaining gaps of a 22-mile sea
wall and creating 108 square miles of farm land and fresh-water
lakes covering another 46 square miles.

The wall is scheduled to shut on April 23.

"There is nobody here. Who's going to farm all that land?"
said Ahn Bae-ok, 66, leaning against the stucco wall of a
cowshed on the edge of a field of mud.

She says her family used to work the tidal flat every day,
digging for shellfish, and farmed fish and seaweed further out
in the water. Life was hard but peaceful and there was enough
money to put her children through school.

"There are no shellfish now," she said, pointing to the
tidal flat and then to a hill that has been torn apart by
explosives to create boulders that are being dumped into the


Hills and mountains in the region are being flattened to
provide material for the land reclamation.

"We call this a battle against the sea," said Lee
Sang-woon, one of the hundreds of construction workers at the

Lee says the sense of mission is heightened by the sheer
enormity of the project and the possibility that the wall will
not stand up to the strong currents.

Two gates consisting of 18 pairs of massive steel slabs
will be used to help drain out the sea water after the project
is finished and regulate the water flowing downstream from the
Mangyong and Dongjin Rivers that converge into Saemangeum Bay.

But the engineering feat makes for an ecological disaster,
said U.K.-born conservationist Nial Moores, who is based in the
southern Korean port city of Pusan.

Several hundred thousand migratory birds, including the
Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann's Greenshank and the Great
Knot, stop and feed in Saemangeum, in many cases the single
stop in their long flight from Australia to breeding grounds in

"For those particular species, the Saemangeum area has been
identified as the single most important site in the Yellow Sea,
and, by extension, all of Asia," Moores said.

By choking the tidal flats and killing the shellfish and
young fish that the shore birds feed upon, the project will
probably lead to the extinction of some bird species, he said.

"We already know what the impact will be. We are under no
illusion," he said.


Young people have been leaving the area and there are fewer
people left to farm the land, critics said.

They said much of the land was likely to be useless for
farming, remaining saturated with salt from sea water.

The government says the area's ecology is changing and the
reclamation project is essential.

Pollution from the rivers flowing into the bay and periodic
flooding in the storm season meant the region was slowly dying
already, said officials at the Korea Rural Community and
Agriculture Corporation that manages the project.

What was being created with the sea wall was a controlled
environment backed by ecological science and land that would
allow high-productivity farming.

"We often talk about the dream of exporting environmental
technology one day, after the work here is done," said Kim
Wan-joong, a deputy director of environmental affairs at the
state-run development corporation.

She rejected Moores' argument that the landfill would mean
the extinction of some migratory birds.

"As big as Saemangeum is, there are wetlands all up and
down the coast and surrounding the Yellow Sea," Kim said on the
edge of the sea wall, her Hyundai covered in dust and parked by
a mountain of boulders.

"I look at it like, if you miss a rest area on the highway,
it's not the end of the world. There'll be another one."

Moores said that was the kind of unscientific thinking that
disregarded the important environmental role of wetlands for
animals, and as a buffer zone between land and sea.

He also rejected the government's argument that tidal flats
would re-form outside the sea wall. "Absolute nonsense," he

"These birds are extraordinarily fine-tuned biological
machines," he said. "They get here, and all they find is dry
mud and rocks and concrete. They are going to die."