Saemangeum, June 2003, Some personal observations
Nial Moores

South Korean president Noh Moo-Hyun, elected on a reformist ticket, announced (without surprise) on June 5th 2003 that the Saemangeum reclamation will continue. However, he now allows that its primary purpose, that of creating agricultural land for rice cultivation (a clear obligation under the domestic legislation and process of the Public Waters Reclamation Act, and the rationale for the project since its conception 30 years ago), is to be, well, given up...

Instead, showing extraordinary vision and equally extraordinary imagination, those supporting the project now say with unflinching conviction that it will instead become, like Yeongjong Island before it, a new regional industrial and trade hub for the 21st century. Like Shihwa too. And Song Do. And all the other world-famous centers that should by now be lining the west coast...

All projects that appear, so far, however, to have failed to meet the fantastic growth rates predicted for them. Ignoring the economic data on past and present performance, and the reality of visits to these sites that shows the same ragged moonscapes fringed by love hotels and other economic outposts, such optimistic claims belie the spending of vast sums of money on public works programs in the national interest.

But is the national interest even being served?

For this activist at least the whole scene is far too depressingly similar to Japan in the early 1990s. At the height of the land speculation bubble, when the Nikkei Index was at 36 000 points, and the rumor went that 4 blocks of land in down-town Tokyo had the real estate value of all of Canada (how ridiculous would that statement sound now, only 12 years on!), the Japanese government pushed ahead with the reclamation of both Isahaya Bay (a "mini-Saemangeum" at just over 3 000 ha) and the construction of a 401 ha artificial island in Fukuoka City's Hakata Bay - a gateway to Asia, a regional industrial and trade hub, they said, that would allow Fukuoka City to surpass all rivals.

With reclamation and dredging, waterbird populations declined from 100 000 at peak in Hakata Bay, to less than 5 000 at peak now; water quality has become so poor that algal blooms give the whole bay the purpley look of red-wine stained dishwater, and the artificial island, its outline magnificent in rock and concrete, contains nothing more than mud, grasses and broken promises.

No-one wants the land: it is too expensive to build on in the "new economic climate". Fukuoka City's financial and environmental health laid waste by a project that was from the first opposed by a large number of its citizens…

So many wetlands in Hakata and Isahaya and Tokyo bay destroyed on the claims of economists who announced that with such projects the Japanese economy would overtake the US's within five years (the same breed seem now to have found a voice in neighboring Korea), and on the commitment of the most sincere and honest leaders, some of whom have since been linked to fraudulent investment deals.
These reclamations, which mean that Japan now needs to import most of the expensive seafood that people think are typically Japanese (much of which is now imported from the Yellow Sea, ironically), have helped to keep the Japanese economy well and truly pegged down. Tens of billions of dollars poured into money-leaking projects, that undermined the national resource base; that meant Japan became increasingly dependent on food imports; that meant Japanese fishing fleets have needed to become ever more destructive in taking their catch wherever they sail.

And now, South Korea. Trying to shake off 50 years of a brutal occupation by Japan, but all the same following the same "industry at all costs" model given to it by its floundering neighbor, South Korea is similarly degrading its natural resource base - its estuaries and tidal-flats, a long-term financial asset to the country - reducing it into concrete and hyperbolic economic forecasts, all for the short-term gain of the development ministries. Sacrificing the nation's local communities (fishers, shell gatherers who have lived with the tidal-flats and estuaries for many human generations); eroding the country's and the world's biodiversity further; hammering away at the Yellow Sea's ecosystem, in the kind of development that ultimately can only provoke greater conflict with the resource-starved North and China that share the Sea…all for what?

For the love of Saemangeum, for the love of South Korea, for people, birds and wetlands, this 40 100 ha reclamation project needs to be cancelled, before the sea dyke is completed and the sea-gates close.

Saemangeum is not just any wetland, it is not another exaggerated cause.

In short:

  • Based on the government's own data and on data collected by researchers (both Korean and foreign), the Saemangeum area is the single most important natural wetland area in South Korea for waterbirds.

  • During migration, it regularly supports more than 50 000 shorebirds; at peak it supports more than 100 000 individuals, with the highest day count (coming from a coordinated count) of 155 000 shorebirds in a single day;

  • Although hard data are still lacking, it is considered by shorebird experts that Saemangeum supports at least 500 000 waterbirds (mostly shorebirds) annually.

    Although small in comparison with some other major shorebird habitats, e.g. in the US and northern Europe, this is, on present knowledge, the largest shorebird concentration in the whole of the Yellow Sea, and represents possibly 10-20% of all long-distance migratory shorebirds on the whole East Asian-Australasian Flyway (a Flyway stretching from New Zealand along the Pacific rim to Arctic Siberia and Alaska).

  • Approximately 30 species of waterbird are regularly supported by the existing estuaries, tidal-flats and shallows of the Saemangeum area in internationally important numbers.

  • This includes several threatened waterbirds, including Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunders's Gull, as well as Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Spotted Greenshank, along with "commoner" species such as Great Knot.

  • South Korea is a signatory to both the Ramsar Convention and the Convention of Biological Diversity. The reclamation of Saemangeum is in direct breach of both of these conventions, and the Ramsar Bureau has even taken the unusual step of protesting the project directly to the South Korean government.

  • Although the project developers are genuinely trying to make the project more "environmentally-friendly" this is based on many false assumptions and a lack of understanding. Saemangeum has a global value as an estuarine system. Its reclamation will convert the area to a freshwater system, with a mix of unused land, industrial sites and presumably agricultural areas. The new system will not be able to support estuarine species.

The area still supports the economic needs of many local communities; communities that have still not yet been given full information on the project. The local communities do not, on the whole, support the reclamation, in the same way they do not support stopping the project. By national standards they live in an economically-depressed area, and they want more compensation, and future construction jobs. They fear if the project stops they will both lose compensation and that the tidal-flats will not be as productive as before: if so, how can they survive economically?

The project, based on comparison with similar projects elsewhere in Korea, Japan and Europe, will lead to significant negative impacts on regional fisheries. Fish species that spawn in the area migrate southward in winter. The impacts to fisheries will not be confined to Saemangeum alone.

If the project were stopped it would signal great maturity on the part of South Korea; it would strengthen trust in South Korea's economic system. Combined with a shift in subsidies promoting marine products and tourism, Saemangeum could be preserved both for the national and the global interest.

We therefore appeal to all people who have witnessed the same senseless loss of the world's most productive places; to all those living in country's where laws protect such valuable areas; or in countries that look set to follow South Korea's pattern of industrialization, to continue to make your concerns heard.

Please write expressing your opposition to the Saemangeum project and hand in or send your letters to the Korean embassy or consulate in your country; contact us so we can also put you in touch with others building an international campaign against this project.