Dambusters celebrate turning of the tide

29th September 2000 at 01:00
A rapidly advancing nation has to find sources of power quickly and cheaply, But South Korea has turned its back on teh easy fix, writes Brendan O'Malley

Poor farmers direct fire at government and greens

It was a long hard battle for green campaigners, but on June 5 they earned their greatest scalp when President KimDae-jung abandoned his plan to build a dam 98 metres high on the Tong river. With that one decision, an area of great natural beauty and habitat of many endangered species in the north-eastern hills was saved.

It was the first time a major government project had been halted by the spread of ideas. A coalition of political dissidents, cyber campaigners and student protestors stirred up enough public opposition to force a rethinking of what constituted sustainable development.

"If the dam had gone ahead, the area would have been flooded," says Yul Choi, secretary general of the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements. "A river area so beautiful, with no paved roads, lots of rare birds and other species, and limestone caves, would have been destroyed."

Now that the project has been stopped in its tracks, it will give heart to campaigners on other issues. "Other citizens are opposing dams in their area," says Choi. "Now they will say, 'Why not cancel our plan as well?'."

Dams are a complex issue for a rapidly industrialising country such as Korea. With so many hills and mountains and high concentrations of the population living in cities, damming to provide hydro-electricity is one way to satisfy the need for power. But the benefits have to be weighed against the side-effects of lost countryside, the devastation of rural villages and the destruction of nature when the land is artificially flooded.

Ten years ago the government set out a blueprint for a national programme. The Ministry of Construction said dams were needed to stop flooding downstream in the populated areas and to help provide more and better water.

"Around 50 dams have been proposed or built," says Dong Won Shin, a senior official in the ministry of environment. "And in 90 per cent of cases there is no problem. They give us electricity, irrigation for agriculture and protection against flooding."

One factor that can tip the balance is that local people fear that their businesses might disappear under water, while others whose land lies outside the submerged area feel they could stand to gain from the extra water made available for irrigation.

Until recently there was little scope for opposition views to be heard because South Korea did not come of age as a democracy until the first election of an opposition party into government in 1998.

Choi's own story bears witness to these changes. Now 51, he developed his interest in green issues while serving a six-year jail sentence for demonstrating against the military government in 1975. He read 250 books supplied by Amnesty International in three years up to his release in 1979.

In the same year, the dictator President Park was assassinated, but Choi was arrested for campaigning for direct elections and was sent to jail again for 16 months. When he got out, he set up the first non-governmental environmental organisation.

"During the President Chun era the Korean government had to construct a lot of power stations and factories to manufacture goods and develop the economy, so the Korean people had to endure the pain of environmental destruction," he says.

He began meeting people near factories who were suffering eye sores, skin diseases and asthma, but often when he did this, people he had met were arrested.

His agency found that 700 out of every 10,000 people in Onsan, site of a major metal manufacturing complex, were suffering pollution-related illnesses.

From 1985 colleges began to ask him to give lectures, but whenever he went to them police would try to arrest him. But times have changed since then. Once it was difficult to campaign to protect, say, birds when people's lives were being taken under military rule and environmental protests were seen as anti-government activities. But the government now welcomes such activism, he explains.

The campaign to save the Tong river from the dam has attracted a wide coalition of support. Opinion formers - journalists, lawyers and doctors - were invited to visit the area to strengthen awareness of its plight. Publicity events were staged including the floating of a boat from the Han river to the Tong river carrying huge placards: "Tong river should flow," they urged.

A cybercampaign was launched by volunteer Samyong Um, 33, who lives in a disused shop near Choo Chun, close to the river. He enlisted the help of dotcom entrepreneurs, photographers and the television channel KBS to generate web pages, video footage, images and documentary material. His website has had 210,000 direct hits in three years, and he spends so much of his life campaigning that friends have dubbed him the "Protector of Tong River".

When a government PR campaign said that without dams there would be water shortages and spring floods, the KFEM countered with a "Save Water" campaign in Seoul. They offered to attach devices to toilets that cut the amount for flushing from 13 litres to seven.

When people along the Tong river downed tools to stage demonstrations in Seoul, many students (30,000 of them, says Choi) joined the protests. It was a new phenomenon in Korea.

Seung-un Lee, 17, became a celebrated objector by organising demonstrations against the fur trade. She and her friends sent letters to department stores putting the case against the trade and picketed one of the best-known stores, Lotte, in Seoul. She also campaigned against the Tong dam and the Samunkeum barrage and land reclamation scheme underway in the wetlands on the west coast, which threatens to destroy vital breeding grounds for thousands of birds.

"If we have courage to do the little things to help the environment and persuade people to agree with us, we can change a lot," she says.

The turning point for the Tong campaign came when KBS broadcast a documentary showing the importance of the Tong as a wildlife habitat.

Samunkeum is the green coalition's next target. But it will be a harder battle to win because building work has already begun and the government has local farmers on its side, even though there is a risk that a new artificial lake to help irrigate the land may be polluted by fertilisers. Nitrates and phosphates will encourage the growth of algae in the water, which will use up the water's oxygen, leaving fish and other organisms to die.

While Korea is a late but rapid economic developer, it is now facing the same problems as other advanced industrialised countries.

"We do not have the sort of blackening of soil problem like Japan had 20 years ago because we have soil treatment technology," says Doug il Choi, president of the National Institute of Environmental Research. "Our real problem comes from micropollutants such as endocrine disrupters, which affect your reproductive system or your brain."

These can lead to children being born deformed. Dioxins - some of the worst endocrine disrupters - are created by landfill sites such as the one at Inchon, the world's largest, which takes the waste from Seoul. Another contentious issue is the disposal of nuclear waste.

There are many green issues in Korea, but the success of the Tong river dambusters will be remembered as a turning point, as it was the first time civil groups halted a government dam project. The victory saw a sea-change in attitudes to environmental issues that may previously have been swept under the carpet.

"Over the past 20 years there have been many changes, and the Korean people now regard environmental issues as among the most important, and those working for the environment as patriots," says Yul Choi. He now reckons he has given 4,500 lectures. The day I met him, he had to rush off to give a talk to the very same people who used to investigate him.


At Moonhee village, a mile from the nearest road, Samyoung Om, 36, lives with his wife and two sons on a wooded knoll near a bend in the Tong river. His home is a series of wooden rooms with tin roofs. His household supplies - cans of kerosene, tools and a canister of drinking water - are stored on tree stumps alongside the house. By the front door is a large tray of bright red 5" chillies from his vegetable garden. Between the house and the river are several simple guest rooms where rafting parties sometimes stay in the summer - and may leave a little money in return.

On the cusp of the knoll, where a chindo dog stands watch, there is a rickety old summer house made from logs, from which you can view the river as it heads downstream through heavily wooded hills.

Om struggles to eke out a living from raising goats on his two hectares and from putting up passing rafters.

"The dam has advantages and disadvantages for this village, but I agree with the environmental movement," he says.

When plans for the dam were announced, only a few people lived in the area. Most had already left to find a school for their children, or for economic reasons.

"They never thought about opposing the government project, because nobody had opposed a government project before," he says.

So he and others from Moonhee were preparing to leave their land for good when some campaigners came to talk to them and persuaded them that there was more to this issue than simply promoting economic development in the area.

"Some people liked the idea because they can get compensation from the government, and it was the way to survive. But we never liked the idea of destroying this beautiful environment. We just thought if it was the government's project we had to accept it."

The government offered compensation - without specifying how much - because the village and surrounding hillsides would have been submerged if the dam went ahead. But to get it residents had to be living in the area and working on the land.

Like others who had moved to nearby towns to earn enough to send their children to school, Mr Om gave up his new business and returned to farming in Moonhee so as not to miss out on the compensation payment.

"Some people had a store or a restaurant. Others had jobs with a firm. I had a flower shop," he says. "My family had to stay in the town because my kids had to go to school, so I borrowed money from the bank. But the government plan was delayed. It's been 10 years since the announcement and now we are stranded with huge debt."

One villager says typically in this area people have debts of pound;24,000.

With such small farms and incomes they find it hard to repay the loans. His neighbour, Hak Keun Lee, 45, earns pound;1,250 a month from a small bed and breakfast, but he is in the red as he has to pay pound;311 a month for his children to go to school in Seoul. His 17-year-old son has had to live on his own there since he was 13 and, like his 15-year-old daughter, has to work in a fast-food joint to get through high school.

But as much criticism is directed at the green campaigners as the government for the failure of either to take account of the economic effects on local people in designating this place a protected ecological site.

"We want the federation (KFEM) to take care of the life of these people," insists Samyoung Om. "We want them to show the same passion for them as they do for the environment."

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