Will Korea pave paradise and put up a parking lot?
John Borowski. August 2003

The following article was posted on Glen Barry's "Environmentalsustainability Blog" in the US: proof, if any more proof were needed, that indeed "the world is watching" Saemangeum and asking how the Korean Government will treat one of its most important assets - its children's future.


South Korea's west coast holds a global paradise referred to as Saemangeum (pronounced “Say-man-gum) an ecological jewel critical to shorebirds from around the world. Nestled in the Yellow Sea ecoregion, this 100,000- acre wetland is comprised of two flowing estuaries of the Mangyeung and Dongjin Rivers. This ecological wonder provides safe sanctuary to over 30 migratory bird species, 158 species of fish and 64 species of bottom dwelling species. Yet, if Korean officials decide to build a 33 km seawall along these two crucial estuarine rivers, the greatest species to lose will be Korea's and the world's children. This biological treasure is a key link in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway: it should not be sacrificed to low- grade agriculture and industrial development. It is an educational and ecological treasure that belongs to the children of Korea, to squander it in the name of economic shortsightedness is a sin the children are least likely to forgive their elders for.

Buddhists and concerned global citizens showed their displeasure to a June 5th decision by President Roh Moo Hyun to continue this ill -fated venture. They marched 305 km in the blazing sun, a 65- day ordeal that brings tears to my eyes. This was no ordinary protest, this was “Samboilbae”, a Buddhist form of protest, marked by 3 steps forward followed by dropping to your knees and bowing to the earth. This was repeated, three steps at a time and bowing for over 305 kilometers! Children, men and women partook in the excruciating display of love and passion for a piece of earth that has evolved into a biodiversity hotspot. But science didn't drive this amazing trek; a deeper understanding of the human dependence on unspoiled ecosystems was the catalyst. The economic mainframe of the earth is the environment and Korea, acting very much like an industrialized nation, is liquidating natural capital for fleeting short-term economic gain. The economic value of functioning wetlands has greater economic value serving as the heartbeat for fisheries, tourism and healthy migratory stopovers. The pain of “Samboilbae” is yet a spiritual signal to the world that should ignite a long forgotten fire in the souls of stressed and jaded industrial peoples: without wild places our souls will fade and no materialistic pleasure can ever soothe that loss.

As a young boy, I grew up near the New Jersey Meadowlands, a glacially formed wetland of immense beauty. Armed with promises of economic nirvana and ecological misinformation, developers began to drain and fill this wetland. Pieces of it still exist, performing ecological wonders despite the industrial and developmental strains placed upon it. Now it is scarred by landfills, industrial parks and mindless pollution: sad testament to man's apparent inability to think even a few decades into the future. Maybe we should have marched up the turnpike, three steps at a time and then, bowing to the earth in reverence. Despite all our material wealth, nature provides the greatest economic stability and promise for our children, only if we understand that pristine ecosystems are essential for the planet's services we all take for granted. There are no tradeoffs in these situations, too much of Korea's tidal areas have been sacrificed, just like here in the United States, where we have haplessly watched over 50% of all our wetlands disappear in the last two hundreds years.

September looms as a critical month for this wetland. The South Korean government is receiving criticism from across the world, but more importantly, the Korean people are speaking out: stop the project. This flood of public protest and concern was heightened on July 15th when Judge Kang Young-ho stated that the Saemangeum reclamation project was illegitimate and should be suspended. This has lead to an appeal process and a landmark day is quickly approaching. This world treasure can be saved and trigger a new vision of protecting global ecosystems.

Korean government ministers must be reached at webmaster@gov.kr-NB and the President of Korea (Roh Moo Hyun) can be reached at Cheongwadae, 1 Sejong-no, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-820, Republic of Korea. We must think globally about the health of this planet and the continued stewardship of ecosystems that provide our fisheries, wildlife, water and air recharge and many other services. We must not fall into a mesmerized state that intoxicates us to the myth of sustainable growth: as we squander our natural capital. No matter how “developed” we believe we have become, our roots will always tie us back to the earth. We have been warned about the fallacy of unlimited economic growth before and I just think of the Cree people's timely warning:

“ When all the trees have been cut down,
when all the animals have been hunted,
when all the waters are polluted,
when all the air is unsafe to breathe,
only then will you discover you cannot eat Money.”

Saemangeum may be a wetland sitting in an area most folks couldn't find on a map: that triggers a global wakeup call. A global “Samboilbae” just might be the ticket.

John F. Borowski is an environmental and marine science teacher in Salem, Oregon. His pieces have appeared in Alternet, N.Y. Times, Commondreams, Liberal Slant, Utne Reader, PR Watch and numerous other sites.