What happened in July 2003?

New Zealand Conservation Group publish Press-Release: July 27, 2003 - Wellington

Forest and Bird urges PM to protest Korean wetland destruction.

Contact: Barry Weeber, Senior Researcher. Phone 025 622 7369 or 04-3857-374
Geoff Keey, Communications Officer. Phone 025 227 8420

Forest and Bird is encouraging Prime Minister Helen Clark to express concerns to the South Korean Government about the destruction of a major South Korean wetland that is important for New Zealand conservation.

A South Korean court has temporarily forced a halt to work on a major reclamation project that will destroy much of the Saemangeum wetland. Environmentalists in South Korea had taken legal action against the government project because it would destroy an internationally important bird habitat. The wetland is an important feeding ground for New Zealand migratory birds.

“The annual flight of migratory birds from New Zealand to the Arctic and back is one of the great wonders of the world. It is amazing to think that birds so small can fly so far. Yet this annual flight is in jeopardy,” said Forest and Bird's senior researcher Barry Weeber.

“The Saemangeum wetland is important for conservation in New Zealand because it is a feeding ground for migratory birds from New Zealand. Destruction of such an important feeding area would jeopardise the survival of the birds on their extremely long flight,” Mr. Weeber said.

“Birds tagged at the Firth of Thames here in New Zealand have been recorded in the Saemangeum wetland, including the kuaka or Bar-tailed Godwit. We know this wetland is important for New Zealand's migratory birds,” Mr. Weeber said.

“It's important that Helen Clark stands up for New Zealand conservation... This is a critical time for the Saemangeum wetland. South Korean courts have temporarily stopped work on this project because of the damage it could do. Now would be a good time for it to be completely stopped.”

Barry Weeber
Senior Researcher, Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society
PO Box 631
Wellington, New Zealand
Phone 64-4-385-7374
Fax 64-4-385-7373

"Tourism Park" Considered for Saemangeum (July 24th)

Is the Korean Government feeling the pressure?

As pressure builds, the following report was published in the Korean Times on July 22nd. While we of course welcome any movement by the Government towards protecting Saemangeum, Birds Korea will not support a compromise that will still negatively impact on Saemangeum's magnificent tidal-flats, bird populations, and fish stocks.

From Ryu Jin, Staff Reporter 'Korean Times' (inryu@koreatimes.co.kr)

"The government is considering changing the aim of the controversial Saemangeum reclamation project into a research and tourism complex, a viable compromise between environmental activists and development advocates.

Minister of Government Policy Coordination Lee Young-tak said during a Cabinet meeting yesterday that he would consider changing the license for the project, whose initial purpose was to create farmland and a freshwater lake.

Lee added measures to protect the tidal flats and improve water quality would also be sought, such as opening floodgates on the sea wall so that seawater could come and go through them.

President Roh Moo-hyun instructed Cabinet members to take special care of the project so that it could be beneficial to both the economy and environment, according to Chong Wa Dae officials.

Initiated in 1991, the Saemangeum project, which is said to be the biggest land expansion project in Korean history, was aimed at turning 40,100 hectares of mud flats in the region, some 250 kilometers southwest of Seoul, into 28,300 hectares of farmland and a freshwater lake by building a 33-kilometer seawall to seal off the mouths of the two rivers that run through the area.

But a large number of environmentalists and academics have warned the project will end up an environmental disaster, destroying a diverse ecological system and the ability of the marshes to purify seawater. They also worry about the quality of the water that would be trapped in the reservoir, fed by streams with agricultural and industrial pollutants.

The Seoul Administrative Court last week ordered temporary suspension of the controversial project until a court decision is finalized on its continuation."

Court hearings continue in Seoul (July 19th)

Data submitted by environmental groups on July 18 prove that water quality is already declining on the Dongjin River, and that if the sea-wall is completed, it is expected to worsen considerably along the lower stretches of both the Mangyeung and the Dongjin Rivers.

The Minstry of Agriculture have responded predictably, asking for more witnesses to be allowed to support their oft-repeated assurances that they can control the water pollution (more successfully, one hopes, than at Shihwa Lake, where tidal-flats were reclaimed in 1994 only to remain unused because of the same problem).

The newly ex-Minister also waded in with some comic relief in this most serious of issues. According to televised news reports he apparently stated in a public meeting that the courts have no right to involve in such a case. He even questioned the ability of the lead judge expected to deliver the final verdict in this case, on the basis of his age (as the judge is only in his 40s!).

Is it possible that the media are misrepresenting his views or that some mistakes in translation might have occurred? Otherwise, who would believe that the (former) leader of one of South Korea's more significant Ministries, formerly in charge of a multi-billion dollar project, could make such embarrassingly ignorant statements in public?

In a separate development, recently-elected President Noh is apparently attempting an extremely difficult balancing act. In a statement strong on compromise but weak on understanding of ecological processes or South Korea's international environmental obligations, he stated that the court hearings need to be over quickly so that the project can continue as soon as possible. The project, he stated, needs to be reviewed and the "contents" reorganised so that both environmental and economic concerns (especially of local people) can be addressed.

How an internationally important tidal-flat can be reclaimed in an environmentally friendly way remains completely unanswered...as he offers no explanation to regional fisheries' workers whose livelihhoods will be devastated if the project continues.

Do environmental protests work? (July 15th)

In a stunning victory for Korean environmental leaders a mid-level court (the Third District of Seoul Adminstrative Court) on July 15th made a historic ruling on a case brought by South Korean environmental groups and 3 539 local citizens: the Saemangeum project must stop, effective immediately!

Under Korean law the end-use of a reclamation project can not be changed - thus when President Roh suddenly announced in June that the reclamation now had no end-use, it opened the way for protesters to approach the Courts once again. Drawing on the expert opinions of NGOs and concerned academics, Judge KANG Young-ho ruled that water in the proposed huge reclamation reservoirs would be of too low quality for agricultural use - rendering the project's meaning illegitimate and the costs required to clean it up far in excess of those claimed by the government.

The Ministry of Agriculture immediately announced that it would appeal: the following day the Agriculture Minister resigned.

A FINAL RULING will be made within the next two to three months.

The decision is a historic one, and it offers a real chance to finally stop this most destructive of projects. Showing respect for historical precedents (e.g. the Shihwa reclamation project which was completed in 1994, but created land that cannot be used for agriculture because of water pollution), the court's decision revealed the independence of the judiciary and the determination of the environmental movement in South Korea: especially admirable when South Korea's short history as a democracy (a mere 15 years) is considered.

For English-language reports on this decision from the Korean media, go to the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement website and follow the links.

Click for how the Herald Tribune reported the story.

"Seawall Dooms Asian Shorebirds" (July 7th)

After years of domestic protests, the voices of concern have at last been broadcast by international media - and recieved huge interest in return. Following exposure on BBC World Radio in 2002, Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) produced a superb 30-minute documentary on the issue called "Dike Hard" for BBC World's "Earth Report", which was broadcast daily for a week from July 7th.

The programme features footage of the construction at Saemangeum and the impact on the surrounding countryside, some of the birds found at Saemangeum, as well as interviews with Birds Korea's Nial Moores, Australian Green Party Senator Bob Brown, and local fisherfolk whose lives are being ruined by the reclamation.

Both TVE's and the BBC World's website have been besieged (excellent reports on Saemangeum and the TV programme are at www.tve.org, www.truthtalking.org, and at news.bbc.co.uk), and the publicity the programme has generated has to be extremely worrying to supporters of the reclamation - and extremely heartening to the rest of us!

If "Dike Hard" was not broadcast in your region, or you'd like to watch it again, click the following:

Earth Report - "Dike Hard"