[VIEWPOINT]Everyone has Saemangeum stakeThe Saemangeum reclamation project, which was started in 1991, is a mammoth effort to reclaim 40,100 ha (100,000 acres) of land. More than 1.5 trillion won ($1.20 billion) has been spent on the project so far and the work on the 33-kilometer (20-mile) sea wall is 90 percent complete. The sluices are all finished.
What is the point of contention over this project? Some are purporting that this artificial lake will turn out to be the second Sihwa Lake, the environmentally disastrous result of a previous reclamation project, and that wetlands are of higher economic value as they are than as reclaimed farm land. These were the grounds on which Seoul Administrative Court ordered the project to be suspended last Tuesday. There are those who insist that Saemangeum is no Sihwa, since no polluting facilities are located in the valleys of the Mangyeong River and Dongjin River that flow into the area. In Sihwa’s case the Banweol Industrial Complex caused the harm. Also, the supporters of the project claim that the value of the wetlands is being exaggerated and that the importance of turning the area into farmland is underestimated because they base their evaluations on reference materials published by foreign environmentalists. To eyes that worship the value of clams and wetland creatures, what is the value of humans? The judge who issued the order claimed that the agricultural ministry had been negligent in submitting material evidence the court demanded. The ministry rebuked the judge, stating that he had not even looked thoroughly over the previously submitted materials nor had requested further material. As we await the court’s final decision, due in three months, we cannot make any hasty conclusions on the future of the Saemangeum project. However, here are a few issues that should be pondered.
First, is it possible to cancel this project? Should we forget about the money already invested on the reclamation as unrecoverable in order not to spend the even bigger amount of money that still needs to be invested? Perhaps that would be proper if we were still in the planning stage. The project is almost complete, however, and it would take a mind-boggling amount of money to demolish the nearly-finished sea wall and sluices and remove the soil from the wetlands. The wetlands that the environmentalist loved are already almost void of life, and there are signs of a new wetlands being formed outside the sea wall.
Second, the final authority to decide on the validity of a national project lies with the president and the National Assembly, which the people have chosen. It is right that the ministries acting under the president’s authority should invite outside experts to analyze the costs and the benefits of this project. The judicial branch should focus on making decisions concerning the legal aspects of the project. This is the principle of the separation of the three branches of government.
Third, civic groups that have been gathering power since the last government have come to constitute the “fourth branch,” although they are not provided for in the Constitution nor elected by the people. How have environmentalists contributed to the national economy? Who is paying for their activities? Are they causing any harm to the public? Are they transparent in their financial management? They might feel proud of this court order but will it truly work in favor of the national interest? Are they aware of the wisdom of people who live in a small country? Did their opposition to a dam on the Dong River help keep it well preserved? Are the environmentalists’ machinations merely a desire to grab the spotlight and have their fifteen minutes of fame?
Fourth, national policies should be consistent. We must get rid of the custom of reevaluating the policies of the prior administration. National policies must be thoroughly thought over in the planning stage and once implemented, the next government should not dismantle them.
Finally, the residents and those whose interests are involved should restrain themselves and regain their composure. The agricultural minister had been too hasty in resigning. Had he been true to his cause, he would have swallowed his bitterness and remained in his post to do his best to see the project through. The environmental groups contributed toward making the Saemangeum project more environment-friendly, including the installation of a sewage system in the Mangyeong Valley. To wish for more would be wishing for too much. The ministers and politicians who attended and encouraged the “three-step, one-bow” protest march by religious leaders against the project should listen to the residents. They should, above all, not throw cold water on the resolution of the residents of Buan who have accepted government plans for a nuclear waste treatment facility in their neighborhood ― they turned NIMBY into “Please In MY Backyard.” The government must accept suggestions from the environmental groups and pursue all efforts to improve the quality of water in the soon-to-be-formed lake. Finally, a compromise could be presented by the government in the form of a promise that Saemangeum will be the last large-scale reclamation project. We must take the path on which all can be winners. The government should stop its aimless wandering.
* The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Pyung-joo