[VIEWPOINT]Look at Saemangeum From the FutureRecently various labor unions and agriculture-related organizations bought newspaper ads to argue that the land reclamation project on the Saemangeum tidal flats in North Cholla province should be resumed, though with environment concerns in mind. And couple of newspapers have carried columns stressing the need to develop the flats. Organizations under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry have visited individuals to persuade them of the legitimacy of the development plan. Finally, the government decided to resume the development in stages.
Advocates of reclamation projects make several statistical points: if completed, the project would create a farmland 140 times bigger than Seoul's Yeouido island and could feed 1.5 million people. During the 2-year project suspension, embankment management has cost 200 million won ($155,000) a day. They also say agrifarming can work in harmony with nature.
As someone committed to environmental conservation but who lacks information, I do not have the data to refute these assertions. But if the reclamation project is necessary to address the farmland shortage, someone will soon argue we should also reclaim Cheonsuman bay in South Chungchong province.
I do not question the commitment of the supporters of reclamation. I do not think the promise that the reclaimed land will be used strictly for agricultural purposes is a lie. But I cannot shake off this question: do they really believe that an increase in farmland is the solution to the overall decline of agriculture in this country?
Why are people deserting rural areas? Does anyone now want their children to become farmers? This development really is not about addressing any deficiency in food, but about making food production easier. Do we argue we should revitalize rural areas while eating inexpensive imported produce from China? Shouldn't we be blamed for creating a situation in which numerous farmers cannot find women willing to marry them?
To preserve water quality after the completion of the reclamation, it is said the development of neighboring cities should be restrained. Polluting factories must not be built, they say. But seriously, will the people of the Saemangeum area, who already think they have been deprived of development, be content to turn away further opportunities for increased prosperity? Farmers say they cannot make ends meet from agriculture alone.
That was why farmland owners demanded that the government allow them to build factories on reclaimed land in Gimpo, Kyonggi province, and Seosan, South Chungchong province. Though they are silent now, some have argued that the Saemangeum tidal flats should be used for purposes other than agricultural after it is reclaimed.
The Saemangeum residents are even harboring hopes that the embankment could make the area an important West Sea hub. They want a port with state-of-the-art facilities and large warehouses lining the shore so trading ships can dock. Would it stop there? Certainly not. Factories would then be needed near the port so exports and imports could be processed more conveniently.
A tiny hole eventually causes a large dam to collapse. The designation of Saemangeum as farmland at present won't affect our descendants 200 to 300 years from now. The point is not choosing between tidal flats and farmland. In the long term, it is a choice between the flats, which are a natural purifier, and artificial facilities that destroy the environment.
I don't have the ammunition to join the fray. But civic groups are raising their voices. Without their efforts for the environment, we would not understand the importance of the tidal flats. We would have been intimidated by hungry developers.
The Saemangeum issue is not over yet. If the government listens to oceanographers and civic environment advocates, it can manage to avoid the worst.
The writer is head priest of Popchusa temple.
by Seok Ji-myeong