Environmentalists decry Korean sea wall

South Korea's Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of continuing construction.

South Korea's biggest conservation battle ended Thursday as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of continuing construction on the controversial Saemangeum sea wall, which when completed will become the longest in the world.

The massive $3.58 billion project aims to convert some 99,000 acres of tidal wetlands into landfill and a reservoir by putting the area behind a 20-mile wall that will block the tide and dam the Dongjin and Mangyeung Rivers that flow into the shallow estuary.

Environmental groups have decried the wall as one of Asia's greatest ecological catastrophes. Saemangeum Bay serves as a key staging site for shore birds and is a crucial feeding area for migratory birds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. The destruction of this habitat, environmentalists warn, will affect bird populations from Mongolia to New Zealand.

Part of the controversy is how the land will be used once the tidal flats are filled. Originally it was to increase arable land for rice paddies. But as South Korea produced a massive rice surplus, in spite of an archaic and inefficient agricultural sector, providing more farmland wasn't an essential need. Critics lambasted the scheme as pork-barrel politics for South Korea's powerful construction cartel and as a "make-work" project on an enormous scale.

As opposition increased, the plans for the reclaimed land shifted to the construction of a tourism-agriculture- industrial complex with a freshwater reservoir and a 540-hole golf course, which would be the largest in the world if completed.

Using the Zuiderzee Works reclamation area in the Netherlands as a rough model, the government estimates the land will drive $1.1 billion of tourism income every year. For comparison, Grand Canyon National Park and the surrounding communities earned $338 million dollars in 2003.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, however, says there's no final plan for how the land will be used. Rather, a final plan will be released in June by the Korean Research Institute for Human Settlements. As for the enormous golf course, which was proposed by the Jeollabuk-do provincial government, the ministry's deputy director, Jeon Jeong-gu says, "That is only the wishful thinking of the local government. The final authority is the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry."

Birds of a feather in the global environmental movement flocked together to protest the sea wall. The Korean Federation of Environmental Movements (KFEM) led the way, and teamed with Greenpeace to stage a protest with the Rainbow Warrior moored offshore. Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, and celebrities utilized an old-fashioned protest march where demonstrators bow deeply on every third step.

Activists built a groundswell of global support through websites, cyber-petitions and e-mails of protest. Much of this work was spearheaded by Birds Korea, an international group that translated the facts of the case to environmental organizations around the world. They invited foreign ornithologists and political leaders to come see the situation on the ground.

The government has responded to environmental concerns by saying it will encourage eco-friendly development. A tourist information center was built on the northern edge of the Byeonsan peninsula.

"It's green-washing," said Yum Hyung-cheol, a director at KFEM. "This project will put over 300,000 birds in danger. Some are protected; others are recognized by the government as natural treasures. That the government says they are destroying the birds' home to build a 'green paradise' is preposterous."

Now that the reclamation project has received the final go-ahead, KFEM and other groups plan to play a watchdog role to ensure the land truly is developed in the environmentally friendly manner the government says.

A short distance down the road is the local resident's answer to the tourist center. Out in the tidal flats are jangseung totem poles that have faces contorted in a twisted scream. Also there are sotdae, another kind of totem that is a wooden pole topped with a carved bird or fish, and some support a wooden scaffold that hoists a dry-rotted fishing skiff. Tied to the poles are ribbons and banners and written on some of them is the international distress call "SOS," which is to mean, "Save Our Saemangeum."

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