By Jon Herskovitz
BUAN, South Korea, Nov 24 (Reuters) - South Korea is betting a multi-billion dollar land reclamation project about seven times the size of Manhattan will lift the economy but environmentalists say it could be one of the country’s biggest ecological blunders.
The Saemangeum land reclamation project uses a 33-km (20.5 mile) sea dyke to reclaim an area of 400 square kms (155 sq miles), turning coastal tidelands that are key feeding areas for globally threatened birds into land for factories, golf courses and water treatment plants.
"This project is not about protecting the environment. It is about economic development. And we will do that in an environmentally sound way," said Park Hyoungbae, an official with the Saemangeum development authority.
The authority said the project, built at a cost of nearly $3 billion, will bring industry to North Jeolla, a province that has traditionally been the agricultural breadbasket of the country but lacks modern industry.
Developers will start construction of an industrial zone next year, offering sweeteners like free land leases for 100 years for selected industries and a free economic zone that offers tax breaks to attract foreign investors, who can stay in a village planned just for them.
They will replace natural wetlands with artificial ones and turn riverbeds into man-made lakes. They will build a park along the road on the sea dyke and try to attract tourists with a theme park, convention centre and even perhaps a casino.
"Saemangeum will turn Korea into a much happier place," said an announcer on a promotional video for potential investors.
The province, which runs from the middle of South Korea to the west coast, is dotted with small farms that grow grain and raise pigs, boasts a mid-sized port that serves China across the Yellow Sea and is home the historic city of Jeonju, once the capital an ancient Korean kingdom.
Saemangeum has drawn the attention of developers in other parts of Asia, which conservationists said could lead them to try to duplicate the engineering feat in South Korea for their own massive land reclamation projects.
South Korea originally launched the project for the estuary, about 200 kms south of Seoul, decades ago when its economy was struggling, food was short and reclamation seemed like a good way to increase farm land in the mountainous and cramped country .
After years of legal wrangling and changes in how to use the land, construction started on the project in 1999 with hundreds of thousands of boulders the size of compact cars dumped into the Yellow Sea estuary to form the dyke that was completed in 2006.
Area farmers have questioned the need for the project, saying there is no one left to work the land due to a population drop while major domestic industry has often stayed away due to a lack of infrastructure.
Critics said the project stayed alive due to bureaucratic inertia and because it created construction jobs in the area that has provided the strongest political support for left-leaning presidents who ruled from 1998 to 2008.
The current conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, who used to run Hyundai’s construction arm, has also thrown his support to the project, saying it will help regional development and stimulate his country’s export-driven economy that is on the ropes due to the global slowdown.
"Saemangeum’s ecological importance seems to be more valued abroad," said Yoon Sang-hoon of the conservation group Green Korea.
"The government is calling this environmentally friendly, but just planting a few trees that have since died does not make it a green project," Yoon said.
Wetlands such as Saemangeum help in flood control, prevent soil erosion and can remove, as well as store, greenhouse gases from the Earth’s atmosphere, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
One of North Asia’s biggest recent projects to reclaim land from tidal wetlands was in Japan’s Isahaya Bay, in the southwest of the country. It has proven to be a disaster, leading to drops in sea water quality and poor soil on land, according to research reports from Japanese academics.
In June, a Japanese court ordered the government to open the sluice gates at Isahaya, shut in 1997, saying the project has caused harm to fisheries and damaged the region’s environment.
Even though there is still water flowing occasionally through sluice gates at Saemangeum, the project has already taken its toll on the environment by destroying wetlands and pushing endangered species toward extinction, conservation groups said.
Migratory birds travelling between Russia and Alaska in the north to New Zealand and Australia in the south congregate for often their only refuelling stop at Yellow Sea tidal flats to feast on shellfish and other food.
A study released last month by conservation groups Birds Korea and Australasian Wader Studies Group recorded a decline of 137,000 shorebirds, and declines in 19 of the most numerous species, from 2006 to 2008 at Saemangeum.
The study indicated that the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the endangered Spotted Greenshank were being pushed to extinction by the loss of wetlands.
"We anticipate the declines will not only continue but become more obvious in other species," said Nial Moores, a British-born conservationist and director of Birds Korea. (Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun)