Dr Nial Moores, Birds Korea, August 2023
It was supposed to be a way of promoting the massive Saemangeum reclamation project and (apparently) of getting more money from central government. Instead, the failed hosting of the World Scouts Jamboree in August was a “Nightmare”. The finger-pointing, blaming and shaming continues.
But was this nightmare fiasco really so unexpected?
Since its inception, the Saemangeum reclamation has consistently failed to fulfil the promises set out for it. The conversion of 40,100 ha of extremely productive tidal flats and sea shallows – previously depended upon by perhaps half a million waterbirds and up to 40,000 fishers and shell-fishers – has taken many years longer and cost trillions of Won more than promised; the industries that were supposed to be lining up to invest, did not; the city of the future, shown so often in advertisements on the otherwise wonderful KTX, has not been built.
Instead, much of the area is either near-desert or polluted lake.
Even the few patches of bird-rich habitat which remain are being bulldozed as part of early-stage airport construction.
The obvious response to the lack of investment and any coherent rationale for the reclamation should be to consolidate losses, and to see what could be restored as part of the national drive toward Carbon Zero and food self-sufficiency, and as part of existing commitments to Ramsar, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the National Biodiversity Strategy. Instead, it seems still to be “pour money at it (in the hope that no-one notices)”. For a little more on this mindset, please see this Korea Times opinion piece by Dr Bernhard Seliger here, or listen to the 70-minute long podcast on the Dark Side of Seoul website (both published in late August).
The area selected for the Jamboree was in the outer part of the Dongjin Estuary – vast sand-mud mix tidal flats many metres deep that supported species like the Endangered Great Knot and Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. These species declined as a direct result of the reclamation. And yet the rationale for hosting the Jamboree there was a commitment to sustainability.
The area selected for the jamboree is flat, very flat – which means drainage is a serious challenge; and all of the minerals left over from 17 years of rot and desiccation mean that little more than a few species of grass can grow. There are no trees; and there is no local town. All the same, the event was scheduled for August – invariably, predictably the hottest month of the year, and often one of the wettest because of occasional typhoons. Who would choose to camp in such a place?
The toilets, showers and food at the camp site reported by national and international media were uneven at best, “a bit horrific” at worst. This is because, it seems, much of the allocated budget was siphoned off by officials taking overseas “study tours”, including to places where no jamboree had ever been held.
Central government stepped in; millions more USD were spent; officials from universities and local governments were drafted in with little warning; all in an effort to avoid the nation losing the shine off from its well-deserved high international standing. The main concern expressed by decision-makers according to media reports was the potential damage to the Busan World Expo in 2030.
The Busan World Expo is a big deal. If Busan wins the bid over Rome and Riyadh in late November this year, it would help the Busan local government to get massive central government funding needed to build a new international airport on an island that flanks the internationally important Nakdong Estuary. It would help secure central government funding for additional bridges and roadways – including through nationally protected wetland. It would help fund a massive further expansion of dockland and port facilities; and, as a result, the further gentrification of local “villages” – which were a distinctive cultural feature of Busan until the start of the decade. Like the Saemangeum reclamation, and the disappointing Yeosu Expo, this will again be heralded in excited speeches as “sustainable development”, with all the best hi-tech and the “full support” of local people. And this time, even with the support of BTS.
As a resident of Busan, I do not know anybody who has actually been asked their opinion about the Expo. Personally, I would welcome it – but only if proper environmental, social and economic safeguards were put in place first. The Expo should be an opportunity to shake off the old development model, and to evolve – more equity and less income divide; genuinely protected areas for biodiversity (there are none as yet in Busan); improvements in road systems, with an emphasis on reducing traffic and improving air quality, noise levels and traffic safety; and a more transparent development model, in which plans are made public, and discussed with local communities before they start. This is Busan’s and South Korea’s time to shine after all.
As a Busan-registered NGO, however, we in Birds Korea do not know yet of any environmental impact assessments or mitigation measures that are being taken for any of this proposed mega-infra; and many of the plans are not public. Like always, there have been some positive analyses produced by research institutes that state that it will create lots of money (but for who?). But has there been any independent review conducted of the impacts that the 2030 Expo will likely have on the majority of citizens or on the biodiversity found within the city limits? If you know of any such report or link, please do let us know! Thank you