The author is an attorney working for the Supreme Court. She is also secretary of the Court’s Manila Bay Advisory Committee, which was created to evaluate government agencies’ compliance with the Court’s 2008 decision ordering them to rehabilitate Manila Bay. This piece was published in the October 11, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

President Lee Myung-Bak, known as “The Bulldozer” in his past life as Hyundai’s go-getting CEO, has a vision for South Korea. Back in 2008, he announced to the world his commitment to “low carbon and green growth,” and pledged to considerably reduce his country’s greenhouse gas emissions. He also supported the founding of the East Asia Climate Partnership during the expanded G8 meeting that same year.

Myung-Bak’s low-carbon- green-growth model promised more jobs in the climate industry and more investments towards greener technologies. A new growth engine of economic growth through environmental preservation thus captured the imagination of his supporters.

A centerpiece in the country’s green growth game plan is the “Four Rivers Restoration Project.” It aims to address water pollution, water shortage, and water-related disasters in South Korea’s four main rivers. Critics, however, have said that the “Four Rivers Restoration Project” will actually degrade the environment and will only benefit the big contractors hired to undertake the mammoth $19 billion construction involved, the country’s biggest civil engineering project to date. It has been lamented that “The Bulldozer” plans to bulldoze over Korean rivers and destroy their beauty and ecological balance.

Ironically, President Lee Myung-Bak was once hailed as a hero for the environment. In 2007, Time said that, as Mayor of Seoul, “his lasting accomplishment was in changing the Asian political dynamic, showing that environmentalism can go hand in hand with development.” He was, after all, responsible for the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, a former sewer-cum-waterway in Seoul that for years was hidden from sunlight and public enjoyment by a busy highway. Indeed, a recent visit to the rejuvenated Cheonggyecheon Stream shows that, at least in Seoul, Myung-Bak’s green vision had welcome results. The five-kilometer stream is filled with locals jogging and catching up with friends on a balmy Friday night. Ducks and other birds can be seen on the water’s surface, and upon closer inspection, the stream can be seen hosting different kinds of fish. The Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project successfully salvaged the stream from its days when it was covered in concrete. The Four Rivers Restoration Project, on the other hand, seems to be heading in the opposite direction by damming rivers and dredging riverbeds, essentially covering larger water bodies in more concrete. Critics say this large-scale project will inevitably cause water pollution and environmental degradation. What worries many is that the project is actually Myung-Bak’s Grand Canal Project in disguise, the construction of which did not push through due to huge public disapproval. The canal was supposed to create shipping routes along the country’s major rivers and connect Seoul with Busan. As no independent body has been allowed to review the project, the most environmentalists have been able to do is to organize sit-ins to protest the ongoing construction. Observers also say that the public’s furor over the restoration project can be seen in their rejection of many candidates allied with the ruling party in elections last June. The Catholic Church in Korea was likewise reported to have encouraged voters to vote for those who would oppose the restoration project.

Another controversial policy is what has been tagged as neo-colonialism. South Korea has been observed as one of the rich countries that have been land-grabbing, with its use of overseas land for its own food security. Agreements with other countries such as Russia and Sudan has led environmental movement Green Korea to state that “The policy to expand farmland abroad is not acceptable because it encourages the destruction of the agricultural base within the target countries and plunders their agricultural resources.” Closer to home, Mindoro province made the news in 2009 when it was revealed that it agreed to a 25-year lease of 94,000 hectares of its land for South Korean corn producer Jeonnam Feedstock Ltd. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global farmland rush can only be mutually beneficial if the infusion of capital “delivers new technology to raise crop yields, provides employment and improves domestic food security.”

Myung-Bak envisions a new landscape in 2011 upon the completion of the restoration project. Koreans, however, still have to decide if this is the Korea they want. They need to ask if the government’s objectives can be attained without harmful cost to their environment.