Tumen River Project Needs Tighter Reins

Plan to turn a fragile delta into `Rotterdam' of Northeast Asia could become blueprint for environmental and economic trouble

THE United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has launched a major new undertaking to encourage "regional economic development" in Northeast Asia, involving the countries of North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and Mongolia.

UNDP expects the program - called the Tumen River Area Development Program (TRADP) - to facilitate much-needed international cooperation between historically unfriendly countries. However, if UNDP continues to shirk its responsibilities of environmental oversight, the Tumen River program may prove disastrous to the region's environment and local economies. October agreement

Last October, the six participant countries signed a pact for Tumen River development, in which all three border countries agreed to create a Free Economic Zone in the area and give up pieces of land to develop an international city. A Joint Management Committee made up of partner countries is to manage the area.

Although this area is largely undeveloped, it occupies a special geographic location. TRADP would offer greater access to the resource-rich, transportation-poor countries of Russia, China, and Mongolia. It would also create a land bridge to Europe, shortening the transportation distance by more than 1,000 kilometers.

UNDP officials see Tumen as a "future Rotterdam" for Northeast Asia. They are seeking investment of $30 billion over the next 20 years to develop the region's infrastructure.

UNDP and participant countries see Tumen as the transportation hub for Northeast Asia. Large railway projects are planned, with the first railway construction between China's Jilin Province and Russia's Primorsky Region to be completed by the end of this year. There are also plans to build a railway across North China to eastern Mongolia, opening up another vast region to resource exploitation.

Having initiated these seemingly orderly negotiations, UNDP officials now acknowledge that the process has raced out of control. A number of the countries involved, especially China and Russia, are rushing into bilateral agreements that are quickly making UNDP's multilateral efforts obsolete.

These bilateral commercial agreements may lead to even more intensive development of the area, with less regulation or oversight by UNDP and other international agencies.

There is vigorous construction in the Tumen area already, as various interests jockey for position. The Chinese, for example, are striking deals with Russia for port access through road and railway. Although UNDP has not even completed a feasibility study, TRADP is no longer in the planning stages. Economic realities in the participant countries are outpacing the political maneuvering of UNDP. From an environmental point of view, it seems as though UNDP may have opened a Pandora's Box. Tumen's delta

Much of the Tumen River delta is fragile wetlands areas that serve as critical habitat for birds and wildlife. Some areas to be affected by TRADP comprise unique ecosystems and are currently protected as nature preserves.

Local officials and scientists, especially in Russia, are deeply concerned about how UNDP's plans will affect the status of these areas, considered by many to be precious "wild" areas.

Rare species of wildlife are at risk of extinction. The 30 Far Eastern Leopards left in the wild depend on habitat located barely 150 kilometers from the Tumen River delta in Russia. Tumen area development is certain to drastically reduce and degrade this critical habitat.

The potential ramifications of TRADP extend far beyond the narrow boundaries of the Tumen River area itself.

UNDP states that one of its main interests in the project is the region's rich natural resources: minerals, energy, water, farmland, and forest. One UNDP official described TRADP as opening up vast hinterland regions of eastern Mongolia and Russia for resource extraction.

UNDP is also portraying TRADP as a conduit to markets for the region's hitherto inaccessible timber, oil, gas, and coal. Trading through the Tumen area will undoubtedly lead to new pressures to overexploit natural resources, despite the assertions by many local scientists that the fragile environment of these regions may collapse under the assault of such large-scale extraction.

The Tumen River Area Development Program seems poised to repeat the classic development model often promoted by international agencies. TRADP would open up resource-rich areas (Siberia, Mongolia) to intensive exploitation by capital-rich areas (Japan, South Korea), all in the name of free trade and international cooperation. Historically, this model has paid little attention to long-term benefit, local value-added processing, or environment protection. Sources of financing

Financing for the project is likely to come largely from multilateral lending agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which have participated as observers in TRADP negotiations.

Private business interests, with Japanese corporations like Toyota and Marubeni leading the way, have formed the Northeast Asia Economic Council to fund Tumen development. Chinese officials, meanwhile, say that they have received more than 6,000 study and trade missions to the Tumen region, involving 40,000 people. They claim to have over $1 billion of committed investments and pledges from 1,000 companies prepared to work in the area.

The greatest pressures may be brought to bear on oil, natural gas, and forest resources found in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Siberian forests, covering 2.3 million square miles (the size of the continental United States), are increasingly threatened by foreign and domestic exploitaton.

These northern taiga forest ecosystems are exceedingly fragile and regenerate extremely slowly. Development of the Tumen, as envisioned by UNDP, would speed up the deforestation and degradation of the world's largest remaining forests.

UNDP officials acknowledge that the effects of the increased trade and development brought on by the Tumen project will probably harm the environment.

However, they claim that it is a function of the local governments to institute environmental protection regulations.

UNDP wants to confine its responsibilities to organizing international agreements, intergovernmental relations, joint economic development, and questions of authority and sovereignty in the region. They don't want responsibility for preventing environmental harm.

Once the international agreements are in place, UNDP is likely to leave the issue of environmental effects to the cash-starved local governments and multinational industries, which are both intent on short-term exploitation.

By contrast, officials in China's Jilin Province believe that the environmental issue should be taken up by UNDP. It is highly doubtful that local Russian, Mongolian, or Chinese provinces could or would preserve resources or implement environmental controls. Ignoring Rio summit

UNDP's attitude is disappointing, coming on the heels of the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio Conference's Agenda 21 calls upon UNDP to work closely with the UN Environment Program and other international organizations to ensure that all future development programs are implemented in an environmentally responsible manner.

Agenda 21 also calls upon UNDP to help regional and local institutions to fashion sustainable development policies. Yet UNDP has made no concrete efforts to fulfill these commitments in TRADP.

UNDP's efforts to promote Tumen development seem to contradict its declared support for a Northeast Asia regional environmental network, formed at a 1992 symposium in Seoul. The network was set up specifically to promote environmentally sound development in the region.

It is not too late for UNDP to change its work on the Tumen project to ensure that Tumen development will be sustainable.

First, UNDP must facilitate the protection of natural areas important for biodiversity, both within the Tumen region itself and in other regions of Northeast Asia.

Second, UNDP must take a leadership role with local and regional governments, scientific institutions, and non-governmental organizations to ensure that resource extraction in Northeast Asia occurs only in a sustainable manner.

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