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South Korea Undergoes Controversial Wetlands Reclamation Project

November 24, 2008

Environmentalists say South Korea could be heading towards a major ecological blunder as it begins a multi-billion dollar land reclamation project about seven times the size of Manhattan that the country believes will lift its economy.

South Korea’s Saemangeum land reclamation project uses a 20.5 mile sea dyke to reclaim an area of 155 sq miles, turning coastal tidelands that are key feeding areas for globally threatened birds into land for factories, golf courses and water treatment plants.

Park Hyoungbae, an official with the Saemangeum development authority project, said the reclamation was not about protecting the environment, but about economic development.

“And we will do that in an environmentally sound way,” he said.

Supporters say the project, built at a cost of nearly $3 billion, will bring industry to North Jeolla, a province that has traditionally been the agricultural breadbasket of the country but lacks modern industry.

An industrial zone will start construction next year, offering sweeteners like free land leases for 100 years for selected industries and a free economic zone that offers tax breaks to attract foreign investors, who can stay in a village planned just for them.

The construction will replace natural wetlands with artificial ones and turn riverbeds into man-made lakes. They will build a park along the road on the sea dyke and try to attract tourists with a theme park, convention center and even perhaps a casino.

“Saemangeum will turn Korea into a much happier place,” according to an announcer on a promotional video for potential investors.

The province runs from the middle of South Korea to the west coast and is dotted with small farms that grow grain and raise pigs, as well as boasting a mid-sized port that serves China across the Yellow Sea. The area is also home the historic city of Jeonju, once the capital of an ancient Korean kingdom.

Developers in other parts of Asia have taken notice of the Saemangeum project and conservationists fear it could lead them to try to duplicate the engineering feat in South Korea for their own massive land reclamation projects.

South Korea originally launched the project for the estuary decades ago when its economy was struggling, food was short and reclamation seemed like a good way to increase farmland in the mountainous and cramped country.

But after years of legal wrangling and changes in how to use the land, construction started on the project in 1999 with hundreds of thousands of boulders the size of compact cars dumped into the Yellow Sea estuary to form the dyke that was completed in 2006.

Farmers in the area say there is no one left to work the land due to a population drop and major domestic industry has often stayed away due to a lack of infrastructure.

Opponents of the project maintain that it has only stayed alive due to bureaucratic inertia and because it created construction jobs in the area that has provided the strongest political support for left-leaning presidents who ruled from 1998 to 2008.

Lee Myung-bak, the current conservative president who formerly ran Hyundai’s construction arm, has also thrown his support to the project, saying it will help regional development and stimulate his country’s export-driven economy that is on the ropes due to the global slowdown.

Yoon Sang-hoon of the conservation group Green Korea said Saemangeum’s ecological importance seems to be more valued abroad.

“The government is calling this environmentally friendly, but just planting a few trees that have since died does not make it a green project,” Yoon said.

According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Saemangeum wetlands help in flood control, prevent soil erosion and can remove, as well as store, greenhouse gases from the Earth’s atmosphere.

Japan’s Isahaya Bay, in the southwest of the country, was one of North Asia’s biggest recent projects to reclaim land from tidal wetlands. And according to research reports from Japanese academics, it has proven to be a disaster, leading to drops in seawater quality and poor soil on land.

A Japanese court ordered the government to open the sluice gates at Isahaya in June, after being shut in 1997. The court ruled that the project has caused harm to fisheries and damaged the region’s environment.

Conservation groups said even though there is still water flowing occasionally through sluice gates at Saemangeum, the project has already taken its toll on the environment by destroying wetlands and pushing endangered species toward extinction.

Migratory birds traveling between Russia and Alaska in the north to New Zealand and Australia in the south congregate for often their only refueling stop at Yellow Sea tidal flats to feast on shellfish and other food.

Conservation groups, Birds Korea and Australasian Wader Studies, said they recorded a decline of 137,000 shorebirds, and declines in 19 of the most numerous species, from 2006 to 2008 at Saemangeum.

The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the endangered Spotted Greenshank were being pushed to extinction by the loss of wetlands, the study found.

“We anticipate the declines will not only continue but become more obvious in other species,” said Nial Moores, a British-born conservationist and director of Birds Korea.

Image Caption: A view of the Saemangeum seawall. Courtesy Wikipedia