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Church Disagrees With Court Ruling Allowing Government To Resume Land-reclamation Project

Updated: January 03, 2006 05:00 PM GMT
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The local Church has expressed disagreement with a court decision to allow an on- and off-again government land-reclamation project to proceed.

The Seoul High Court ruled on Dec. 21 that the government could resume the project to transform large tidal flats along the country´s southwestern coast into farmlands and a freshwater reservoir. The project site is in Saemangeum, about 200 kilometers southwest of Seoul. Jeonju (Chonju) diocese covers the area.

The high court overturned a lower court ruling in February that favored a group of Jeollabuk province residents and environmental activists. The lower court had asked for the project to be scrapped or revised to minimize potential environmental damage.

Father Jacob Kim Kwang-tae, president of Jeonju diocese´s Justice and Peace Committee, told UCA News on Dec. 29 that the diocese disagrees with the court´s ruling "in principle." But the issue is too "sensitive" for the Church to take an official stand on it, he added.

"Since our province is far more underdeveloped than others, many of the residents, including the diocesan faithful, want the government project to proceed, hoping it boosts the region´s economy and development," he said.

"The project, however, has created serious environmental problems. And its original purpose to create farmland is untenable because many farmers are giving up farming and leaving their land. That´s why our diocese has strongly opposed it," Father Kim explained.

The priest added that tension exists among those residents who support the government project and residents who oppose it, so it is important to help them reconcile with one another.

The Saemangeum reclamation project, begun in 1991, involves construction of a 33-kilometer-long sea wall, which would convert 40,000 hectares of mudflats into 28,300 hectares of farmland. Another feature is a freshwater lake for irrigation.

Saemangeum´s vast tidal flats cover the Mangyeong and Dongjin river estuaries, midway along South Korea´s western coast. The flats stretch 35 kilometers from north to south and 30 kilometers from east to west.

The project has been halted several times because of legal suits filed by environmental groups and residents in the affected area.

Environmentalists, religious bodies and civic groups want the scheme to be shelved, claiming it would destroy an ecosystem that is home to 370 species of marine life and a stopover for migratory birds.

The high court ruled that "although the environmental impact assessment" given by the government "was not done solidly enough," it did not mean that the project violated the law. Consequently, "the argument that proceeding with the project is invalid is not accepted."

Regarding compensation for the residents around Saemangeum, the court maintained that the people already had agreed to the project proceeding and had received compensation from the government for their property.

Considering the expenses poured into the project and the rate of progress of construction work so far, "it is not acceptable to scrap the Saemangeum project," the court declared.

It described construction work on the sea wall as 92 percent complete. The government has poured 1.9 trillion won (around US$1.9 billion) into the construction work since 1991.

On Dec. 26, five days after the ruling, a coalition against the project held a candlelit rally in Seoul to "save the Saemangeum tidal flats." Five Catholic NGOs are among the 200 civic and religious groups in the coalition.

A press release the coalition issued that day called the high court´s ruling "out of date" and warned that the environment would be damaged and degraded as a result. "We take to the streets again because the Saemangeum wetlands should be preserved," it stressed.

Father Francis Lee Dong-hun, head of the Korean Catholic Solidarity for Environmental Movement, which is a member of the coalition, told UCA News on Dec. 29 that the high court ruling "chokes the last breath from the Saemangeum mudflats, ending life on it -- including that of poor residents."

He added: "It is true to say that there is disagreement and tension among the residents on the matter. But the project eventually benefits only the rich and big company owners, and the ordinary and poor people will lose a lot."


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