Rivers project puts church and state at odds in South Korea


Rivers project puts church and state at odds in South Korea

Tue, 25 May 2010 15:46 
By Hannah Bae

SEOUL: As South Korea gears up for local elections on June 2, church and state are clashing over a large-scale public works project on the nation's main rivers.

Christians and Buddhists have been stepping up their opposition to the four major rivers restoration project, said Mark Whitaker, a professor of environmental sociology at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"I was quite shocked to see focusing in front of my eyes 'eco-religion,' the thing I've been writing about in the past five to six years," he said.

The 22.2-trillion-won (RM61-billion) construction scheme aims to improve water quality, prevent floods and droughts, secure water supplies, add tourist facilities and contribute to regional development, according to the government. It involves the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan rivers.

Environmentalists criticised the ecological consequences after the government's June 2009 release of its master plan for the project, a pet initiative of President Lee Myung Bak.

Park Chang Kun, a professor of civil engineering at Kwandong University, questioned the planned installation of 16 weirs on the rivers.

"The essential function of a weir is maintaining the water level, which is far from flood control," Park wrote. "Furthermore, installing weirs actually makes the quality of the water worse, and causes irreversible destruction of the ecosystem."

Religious groups have begun to join the conservationists' efforts.

Hot spot
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea in March expressed concern about "potentially deadly environmental fallout". Some 200 churches across Seoul hung up banners bearing messages like "Stop the four major rivers restoration project now -- it goes against the order of creation."

Also in March, the Venerable Sugyeong, the standing chairman of Buddhist Environmental Solidarity, opened the Yeogang Zen Center, a protest site on the banks of the Han River.

There, members of conservationist groups like the Eco-Horizon Institute and Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM) join Buddhists for weekly protests.

"We need to realise that we are the river and the river is us," Venerable Sugyeong said. "We need to be in a position to resist what's happening here."

"The first rule in Buddhism is don't kill other things, because humans rely on animals, water and air and cannot stand on our own," said Venerable Jigwan, chairman of a Buddhist committee opposed to the project.

"In the process of destroying the rivers, we are killing ourselves -- that's how we take it."

Ma Yong Un, a KFEM wetlands researcher, has been camping out at the Yeogang centre to raise awareness of endangered plant and animal species, like the fig marigold and Korean tiger lizard.

"This area is a hot spot on the four rivers project," Ma said. "If we miss this opportunity, it will be harder to conserve these plants and animals."

Growing opposition

The National Election Commission in late April reacted to growing public opposition to the project by deeming it a "hot issue" and banned political parties from making campaign pledges about it.

In addition, religious and civic groups have been barred from discussing the issue at rallies.

But the commission's gag has been ineffective. Criticism continues, most notably in a May 10 mass religious protest held at Seoul's Myeongdong Cathedral that drew about 10,000 people.

Kim Seung Kyum, a public relations specialist at the Office of National River Restoration under the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, said the environmentalists and religious leaders have been insisting on "preservation", but the rivers need more.

"Nothing built on nature is the best for the wildlife habitat," he said, adding that the government was reviewing the protesters' claims and was ready to accept reasonable conclusions.

Meanwhile, the government continues to paint a rosy picture of the project's economic benefits, with a recent land ministry report saying some 10,364 people were working on the construction sites as of mid-May.

The workers' collective 20-billion-won monthly wages "will revive the purchasing power of the middle class and revitalise local economies," the report said.

"I expected the quality of life and economy here to improve," said Hong Seong Beom, 25, who works at a riverside restaurant in Yeoju.

"But now that construction has started," he said, gesturing at the river, "the water isn't flowing, it's cloudier, and fish are dying."

Son Kyung Hee, a resident of Daejeon on the Geum River, said despite the real economic benefits, she thinks the four rivers are just a construction scheme disguised as an environmental project.

"There seems to be no national consensus," she said. "I think the government is not telling the truth... "


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