Policymakers still favor coastal reclamations
The exquisite and endangered Black-faced Spoonbill has returned to the mudflats of Songdo. A rare and dignified creature of prehistoric nobility, he reappears every spring, sporting his royal sash and golden tassels. His kingdom is the sandbars, substrates, and shellfish beds that snake all the way to Sorae creek. He nests on the lonely islet, he bathes in the rock pools. He trawls the shallows, with sideways sweeps of his long, spatulate bill.
For the first time in millennia, however, this idyllic scene has changed. Plastic pipes, poles and debris lie scattered over the thick, dark mud. Men in bulldozers bark orders at each other, as they set about barraging, drying out and destroying the ancient tidal flats.
One has to wonder at how men can casually destroy their nation’s natural heritage. Perhaps they do not notice the beautiful life around them. Perhaps they view globally threatened species as on the same level as cockroaches or houseflies, to be exterminated under a sterilization of mass concrete.
I have tried to alert the construction workers. Once I invited some laborers to look through my telescope at some distant Oystercatchers. Their eyes lit up in amazement that such birds existed out on the mud. On a different occasion I mentioned the birds to the foreman. His face suddenly complicated into a frown. ``There are no birds here!" he bellowed, precisely as a flock of Godwits whooshed over his head like an air force display team.
Towering over this destruction stands the aspiring utopia of Songdo City, comprising 50 million square feet of office space, 4000 hotel rooms, and a convention center. Despite costing the taxpayer upwards of three trillion won, this white elephant remains a ghost town, trapped with spiraling debts. The situation is similar for the country's five other free economic zones (FEZ), all but one of them built on former ecologically valuable wetlands. Created to satisfy a non-existent demand, these make-work mega-projects have attracted only 3.7 percent of foreign investment since opening in 2004.
When the ROK hosted the prestigious Ramsar Convention in 2008, its disappointing environmental record came under international scrutiny. However, the Korean delegation stole the show, grabbing worldwide acclaim by drafting the ``Changwon Declaration on Human Well-being and Wetlands."
This bold document urged the international community to ``systematically undertake concerted efforts to ensure preservation of the world's precious wetland areas." Additionally, the government repeatedly promised that ``that inter-tidal mudflats should be preserved and that no large-scale reclamation projects are now being approved in the Republic of Korea".
Since 2007, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs had also developed the National Wetlands Management Plan, aiming at no national net loss of wetlands. In a twist of typical chicanery, the same body announced in March 2009 that most of the remaining 1015 hectares of mudflat would now be reclaimed ― along with ten further reclamation projects ― totaling an additional 953 hectares nationwide. It seems that national policy is still strongly in favor of tidal-flat reclamation after all.
Since 2003 the Songdo IFEZ has been constructed on 5300 hectares of pristine mudflat. From this expanse, however, developers have somehow contrived to spare only 300 hectares of shallows, a tiny remnant that is underwater and inaccessible to birds for most of the daily cycle.
As I listen to the accelerating clamor of jackhammers echoing over the bay, I breathe a deep sigh. A myopic cult of corporate greed ― whose only values are monetary ― is vandalizing our natural world. Perhaps Korea will finally accede to its obligations and stop ruining its coastal wetlands ― presumably when there are none left to destroy.
The writer is a conservationist associated with various environmental organizations in Korea. Email him at email@example.com.