Faith speaks in Seoul
by Andrew Pascoe
January 06, 2011
In a rare show of unity, South Koreaï¿½s religious leaders have joined
forces against a project to dam the countryï¿½s four main rivers. Andrew
Some say faith can move mountains ï¿½ but thatï¿½s not where its
relationship with nature ends, according to South Koreaï¿½s outspoken
religious leaders. There are few issues capable of uniting four major
religious groups traditionally at odds with each other, but the South
Korean governmentï¿½s controversial Four Rivers Project is one of them.
Mounting public anger over the environmental impact of the giant
engineering scheme, which aims to dredge and dam the countryï¿½s four
major waterways, was overshadowed by economic issues during the recent
G20 summit in Seoul and has been sidelined by global media more
interested in the flare-up in tensions with North Korea.
But locally, a Catholic, Buddhist, Won-Buddhist and Protestant protest
has resonated more forcefully than any issue since the national stand-
off over beef imports from the United States in 2008.
The nexus of the religious campaign is an open-air Mass in tribute to
nature, held every day since February this year by Catholic priests in
Paldang, 60 kilometres east of Seoul. When I visited the riverbank
service in November, around 30 people sang hymns and received
communion before a makeshift crucifix fashioned from a tree. As an
organic farmer spoke about how his livelihood had been crippled by the
so-called Four Rivers restoration project, bulldozers were whining in
In many other countries, holding a religious ceremony in the
countryside would hardly be incendiary stuff. But in South Korea, this
small act of dissent against president Lee Myung Bakï¿½s massive public
works project has snowballed.
Seventy per cent of citizens reportedly oppose the 22 trillion won (US
$19.2 billion) project to re-sculpture the Han, Nakdong, Geum and
Yeongsan Rivers and convert the adjacent farmland into tourism
infrastructure. The keystone of president Leeï¿½s ï¿½Green New Dealï¿½ to
create jobs, the Four Rivers project is billed by the government as an
eco-tourism vehicle that will also prevent flooding and maintain a
clean water supply.
But critics say the project threatens to destabilise critical
ecosystems and contaminate the rivers, which provide drinking water to
greater Seoulï¿½s 22 million residents.
Tragically, at the outset of 2011, the groundswell of anti-government
sentiment inspired by the ï¿½holy hell-raisersï¿½ seems unlikely to halt
or water down the project. Construction of 16 new dams is well under
way, as is the renovation of dozens of old dam structures along the
four rivers. Other work includes reinforcing 209 miles of riverbanks
with cement and dredging 570 million cubic metres of sediment from
about 430 miles of riverbed.
The project has already decimated farming communities. Yu Young Hoon,
a farmer from Namyangju, an area north-east of Seoul, said over 64,000
people had been displaced by the project ï¿½ some removed forcefully
when they tried to protect their land from the bulldozers.
Yu was one of the first to campaign against the project, organising
farmersï¿½ protests. ï¿½We farmers fought alone, but the governmentï¿½s
power is so strong,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½So I asked the Catholic Church for help.ï¿½
Father Cho Hae Bung, priest at the Catholic Seoul Archdiocese took up
the fight, inaugurating the daily Mass and founding the Catholic
Solidarity for Deterrence of the Four Rivers Project.
Since then, leaders from other religions have joined the campaign.
Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist and Won-Buddhist figureheads preside
over a weekly multi-denominational prayer vigil in Seoul, an
exceptional show of solidarity among the South Korean religions. They
have also organised rallies and fasts in central Seoul and called on
citizens to boycott the major companies involved in the projectï¿½s
construction. A Buddhist monk even burnt himself to death in protest.
The churchesï¿½ joint stand has galvanised widespread public opposition
to the project. Civil society groups, including a 2,800-strong
alliance of professors, a studentsï¿½ coalition and environmental
organisations have gained widespread support despite largely
uncritical domestic media coverage about the project.
Sociology professor at Korea University, Kim Chul Kyoo, said Korean
religious groups had a history of involvement in environmental issues,
including leading the protest against the Saemangeum seawall project,
a 34-kilometre barrage on the coast of the Yellow Sea, in the 1990s.
ï¿½Each of the religions emphasises life ï¿½ not only human life, but
other species and biodiversity within this critical ecosystem,ï¿½ Kim
A year on from the projectï¿½s groundbreaking, construction is nearing
the halfway point and only a few farmers remain in the affected
regions; the rest have been removed or given up. The project is ahead
of schedule and seems likely to meet its completion date in late 2011,
before the nation heads to the polls for presidential elections.
The strength of the religious activism motivated the main opposition
Democratic Party to take up the fight as a critical political issue.
The party blockaded parliament in wild scenes in December ï¿½ for the
first time attracting mainstream global press coverage about the Four
Rivers project ï¿½ in a bid to slash the schemeï¿½s 2011 budget. The party
succeeded in getting a 270 billion won (US$235 million) cut, far short
of the 6.7 trillion won (US$5.9 billion) reduction they had been
At the same time, court bids by citizens and civic groups to have the
project declared unlawful failed in December. Further court challenges
are expected to suffer the same fate.
While hope is waning, Father Cho said the riverbank Mass he started
just shy of one year ago would continue to advocate on natureï¿½s
behalf. ï¿½When the Government stops, we will stop,ï¿½ he said.
And while Korea's religious leaders are doing much more than praying
for the countryï¿½s ecological future, they must be wondering whether
nothing less than an act of God is now capable of putting president
Leeï¿½s pet project in limbo.
Andrew Pascoe is an Australian journalist based in South Korea.
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