Korea: New development bites the hand that feeds eco-tourism

Endangered spoonbills and mergansers have yet to be convinced that South Korea's government really has gone green.

South Korea has pledged $85bn to what it calls environmental projects over the next five years but naturalists fear much of the money will fund construction work and tourist resorts, further eroding eco-systems battered by Korea's rapid industrial growth.

Examining bird habitat offers a vivid insight into Korea's green credentials. A plan to revitalise the country's four main rivers also includes new leisure facilities and 1,206km of cycle paths. Revealingly, the announcement of this part of the "green new deal" sent asphalt shares soaring.

Naturalists shudder at the thought of such eco-tourism, knowing past riverside developments were far from green. At the rural resort of Gangchon, day-trippers roar quad-bikes down tarmaced river banks; young couples shriek as they race their tandems. Wildlife keeps its distance.

Environmentalists argue turning rivers into tourist centres would wipe out Korea's endangered species, such as the scaly-sided merganser, a timid duck.

Black-faced spoonbills should offer an example of how to get eco-tourism right; Taiwan is using the bird as a pin-up for its tourist industry. By contrast, Korea is publicly trumpeting eco-tourism but destroying spoonbill habitat.

The craggy peninsula has long looked to reclaim tidal flats for industrial development. It has reclaimed a block of land at Saemangeum in the Yellow Sea seven times the size of Manhattan for factories, killing the migratory birds that flocked to feed there. Despite pledges to rein in reclamations, Korea has announced further plans.

"It is extremely difficult to understand the logic of investing a billion US dollars to 'invigorate eco-tourism' while at the same time many of the nation's most important and valuable sites for global biodiversity and eco-tourism are being destroyed," says Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea.

Ko Eun-sik, a former fisherman campaigning against the Saemangeum reclamation, says the government's attempt to clean up the pollution created by the development is having very limited success.

"The eco-system has broken down and the area smells terrible … there are so few fish."

Korea's government brushes off criticism from naturalists, saying it will keep some wilderness and give due attention to any species threatened by leisure development. Still, Mr Moores says he is unaware of any survey on the merganser.

"That would seem to be the emblematic species that would illustrate the government's intent to preserve birdlife," he says.

The government says it has no data on the merganser but stresses time must not be wasted, adding dams and dredging are urgently needed to prevent droughts and floods.

Seoul insists the green plans will revolutionise Korea's economy, ditching dirty manufacturing businesses to form an eco-friendly economy to regain its competitive edge over China.

President Lee Myung-bak argues the green revolution will match the "miracle on the river Han" - the term used to describe Seoul's transformation from a city razed by the Korean War to the heart of an Asian tiger.

"It is green growth that will enable a miracle on the Korean peninsula to succeed the miracle on the Han river," he said in an address to the nation.

The green projects highlight job creation. The official target is to create 950,000 jobs over the next four years, betraying Seoul's concerns about the impending unemployment in traditional industries such as shipbuilding, where over-ordering has created a bleak outlook.

That said, Korea is still pouring serious money into old industries rather than nascent green ones. In April, Seoul doubled to $7bn the money available to support shipbuilders. The sum allotted for new biogas power plants is a humble $22m.

Automakers such as Hyundai Motor have been given generous tax incentives. The construction industry will also be a big winner from the green new deal. Indeed, Seoul has even announced the relaxation of red tape for developing pristine national parks, seeking more resort stops for tour ships.

It is on energy consumption that Korea, the world's sixth biggest oil importer, really lags behind. It was the fastest growing emitter in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development between 1990 and 2005. Visitors to Seoul in winter are shocked houses are so poorly insulated that snow hardly settles on the hot roofs.

The United Nations Environment Programme calls Korea's renewable energy targets unambitious, seeking only 6 per cent from renewables by 2020 instead of the 20 per cent sought by the EU and China. Korea says it lacks the natural advantages required to be successful with renewables, instead pushing ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Despite these stumbling blocks, Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, says the most significant factor is that Korea is opening up a debate about green issues.

"This government has already set a fundamentally new set of parameters," he says.

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