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South Korean Court Rejects Bid To Save Wetlands

North Cholla province where the wetlands are located.
by Lim Chang-Won
Seoul (AFP) Mar 17, 2006
South Korea's highest court on Thursday rejected a petition to save a vast tract of coastal wetland threatened by the country's biggest land reclamation project. More than 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) of wetlands at the mouth of two rivers at Saemangum on the southwest coast are scheduled to disappear beneath landfill.

Under the 2.05 trillion won (2.1 billion dollar) project launched in 1991, the wetlands will be replaced by farmland, a reservoir and an industrial zone.

Environmentalists had asked the Supreme Court to block the completion of the 33-kilometer-long (20-mile) seawall that will block two river estuaries and seal off the wetlands. Only a 2.7-kilometer section of the wall remains to be built.

Following the court ruling, the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry which has sponsored the reclamation project said it would complete construction of the seawall next month.

Environmentalists, along with a group of residents of the region, filed a joint suit in 2001 to block the project.

They won a victory in February 2005 when the Seoul Administrative Court ordered the government to stop or modify the project. But in December last year the government overturned that ruling on appeal.

"That lower court ruling is appropriate because there is no clear evidence to back up the claim by environmental groups that the project has no economic merit," the top court said in its 11-2 decision.

Conservationists say the project will destroy South Korea's most important wetlands area for shore birds and waterfowl, and erase a rich fishery and aquaculture resource and a irreplaceable natural asset.

They say the project, conceived in 1986 when the need for more farm production was a national priority, will create an environmental disaster without economic benefits because much farmland in South Korea is now unused as the rural population declines.

The governor of North Cholla province where the wetlands are located hailed the court ruling and urged conservationists to end their "unproductive" debate over the project, which was suspended for two years until March 2001 because of protests.

"From now on, we must push forward with the project," said governor Kang Kyong-Wook.

Environmental groups, however, said they would continue their campaign. "We will not stop our movement to save wetlands in Saemangum," Kim Hye-Chung, an activist from the Korean Wetlands Alliance, said in a statement.

"The Saemangum project will cause an ecological disaster in the region. We especially oppose the government's plan to block two rivers," she said.

On Wednesday hundreds of fishermen mobilized about 200 fishing boats in a protest against the reclamation project off Buan, a nearby national park.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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