One of the most dramatic social movements for environmental protection in our time was waged in the Republic of Korea, and the threatened ecosystem was a vast expanse of mud.
The Saemangeum tidal flats formed over millennia as the Mankyung and Dongjin rivers deposited silt at the shore of the Yellow Sea. Teaming with fish, shellfish and invertebrates, the mudflats supported some 25,000 small–scale fishermen and their families.
Saemangeum also provided the most important feeding ground for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds that migrate between Australia and the Arctic. Famished and exhausted from flights of several thousand miles, shorebirds rest and feed at Saemangeum for weeks at a time, preparing to resume their 9,000-mile journeys. Among the globally endangered visitors at Saemangeum are the Spotted Greenshank (estimated world population 700) and Spoon-billed Sandpiper (estimated world population 2,000). The Ramsar Convention defines wetlands used regularly by 20,000 shorebirds as “wetlands of international importance”. Saemangeum was used by over 500,000 shorebirds per year. Thirty species of waterbird are supported in internationally important concentrations at Saemangeum – more than any other site in Korea.
In 1991, the Korean government began building a 33–kilometer sea wall to cut the flow of seawater across the Saemangeum mudflats and “reclaim” them for agricultural use. Against the advice of the government’s own 2001 Expert Review Panel, and in spite of a decade of public demonstrations, South Korea’s newly elected president allowed continued
construction of the sea wall, now complete. The sea wall is the world’s longest. It destroyed a 208–square–kilometer ecosystem that was Korea’s most important wetland. The Yellow Sea fishery lost a major spawning ground, and ornithologists believe that a tenth of the visiting bird populations will perish for lack of sustenance.
In 2003, with opinion polls running 81% against the reclamation project, Buddhist and Christian religious leaders galvanized public protest by undertaking a 65–day march from Saemangeum to Seoul, a distance of 310 kilometers (194 miles). They took three steps, then kneeled and bowed to the ground continuously for the entire march, a form of protest called Samboilbae. Some of South Korea’s best known celebrities joined in the “Three Steps One Bow” march, arriving at Seoul’s city hall on May 31 along with some 8,000 people. For a week in June, civic groups attempted to prevent the closing of the dike by digging dirt out one shovel–full at a time.