Fake greenhouses garner gov’t subsidies

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Fake greenhouses garner gov’t subsidies

The administration’s controversial four rivers project has stumbled over yet another hurdle as police recently found a string of “fake” greenhouses, built for the sole purpose of garnering government subsidies, in the Nakdong River area in Gimhae.

President Lee Myung-bak’s administration started the four rivers project last fall to restore the nation’s major rivers - the Han, Geum, Nakdong and Yeongsan - and their banks, and offered the subsidies as part of the drive to promote agricultural uses of the surrounding land. However, the project has faced harsh criticism from opposition parties and civic groups, which say that the ecosystems in and around the rivers will be ruined by this project and the government is wasting tax money on a futile effort.

In Hallim County, Gimhae, near the Nakdong River, a long row of empty greenhouse frames marked off by steel pipes line one road. No crops grow inside the frames, and last Friday signs were posted in front calling for the owners to take them down immediately.

“These greenhouses were set up only for their owners to collect government compensation for building them. When it was discovered they’d been illegally built, the owners abandoned them,” said Ahn Yong-guk, a division head at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, which is involved in the company’s Nakdong River development project.

According to the Gyeongnam Provincial Police Agency, there are around 320 such greenhouses near the Nakdong River, and 85 people have collected a total of 2.77 billion won ($2.4 million) in government subsidies for building them since the four rivers project was launched. Of these, 11 have been arrested, but police say it’s likely that there are many similar frauds around the other three rivers under restoration.

Jeon Gi-hwan, who is in charge of the probe in Gimhae, said that investigation started when a local farmer committed suicide after he invested a lot of money to build fake greenhouses, only to have the fraud discovered and compensation denied.

“Since early last year, rumors have spread around the Nakdong River area about how one can get compensation just by putting up pipes and making fake greenhouses,” Jeon said.

In many cases, people from outside the area heard the rumor, bought cultivation rights from farmers and built large-scale fake greenhouses. Last year, a man surnamed Suh, 61, was arrested for building five such greenhouses and collecting around 299 million won from the state.

Police said the average cost of buying cultivation rights and pipes to construct a 400-square-meter (4,300-square-foot) greenhouse is 1 million won, compared to the government compensation of 10 million won.

The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs ordered Gimhae to appoint an investigative team before the project got underway, but according to the Gimhae city government, only five employees are assigned to investigate - too few to do the job thoroughly.

Yun Chang-su, an information division manager at the Gyeongnam Police Agency, said, “Related bills [for the four rivers restoration project] need to be revised so that a thorough investigation is possible.” He called for stronger penalties against people who illegally collect subsidies.

By Hwang Sun-yoon [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]
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