South Korea’s Four Rivers Project

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photo: Patrick Lydon

During my time in South Korea last month shooting for Project Transport Me, I had the opportunity to work with a delightful young woman by the name of Suhee Kang. Suhee and her group of friends had recently begun taking part in ‘weekend farming,’ an activity that is rather popular in South Korean cities whereby urban workers trek out to farms (often by train) and work on a plot of land for the weekend. It’s one of the ways people here in South Korea re-connect with nature in a productive way, and after a hard week working in between concrete and asphalt of the city, it’s surprisingly relaxing to be out in the dirt, pulling weeds and sowing seeds.

Through my involvement with these organic riverside farms, I learned of plans by the government to pave them over with concrete and add recreational facilities as part of their highly controversial “Four Rivers” project.

The following report is based on interviews with various farmers in the Dumulmeori region, not far outside of Seoul. This is a joint photography/interview project with Suhee Kang, although in fairness, Suhee conducted the majority of the interviews, in Korean of course.

The Dumulmeori Organic Farm Complex

July 28, 2011, Paldang South Korea

A worker relaxes at Dumulmeori Organic Farm near Seoul, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

A worker relaxes at Dumulmeori Organic Farm near Seoul, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Dumulmeori Organic Farm, located where the Namhangang and the Bukhangang Rivers meet to form the Han River, is a beautiful slice of nutrient-rich land which has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Government construction in this area began in 1973, when the Paldang Dam was completed and 12,240,000m² of paddy fields and dry fields were submerged along with the destruction of 10,000m²  of ‘vinyl houses’ (green houses made with plastic sheets).

Along with the loss of farmland, troubles for the residents of Paldang – now the source of clean water for the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area – began during this construction project. The area had already been designated as a ‘Green Belt,’ or development restriction area, in 1971, and was subsequently designated as a Service Water Source Protection Zone in 1975, a Nature Preservation Zone in 1982, and ultimately as a Special Measures Area in 1990.

The regulations eased slightly with the development of semi-agricultural land in 1994, but these developments were hastily carried out with not much thought to impact on the surrounding environment – many recreational facilities were installed with the development – and led to water pollution. As a result, the regulations tightened once again with the designation of Waterside Zones in the area. Throughout all of these steps, proper compensatory measures were never taken for the residents, and their discontent and grievances continued to accumulate.

Over the next several years, however, the residents of Paldang turned what seemed to be divine punishment into opportunity. With the responsibility of protecting their ‘Service Water Source’ and at the same time make a living, they turned to organic farming and urban-rural direct dealing, founding the Center for the Organic Farming Movement in the Paldang Service Water Source Area.

The movement was replete with difficulties in the beginning as the produce-buying public in Seoul and surrounding cities were largely indifferent to organic produce. The movement, however, persevered.

Today approximately 200 small organic family farms supply almost 70% of the demand for environmentally friendly produce in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area, the farms maintain an annual revenue of over ₩10 billion KRW ($10 million USD.)

But the residents of the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area have more to thank Paldang farmers for than just organic produce. Faced with the public opinion against the lifting of the regulations in the area for the last 20 years or so, the organic farmers have acknowledged the necessity of the preservation of the Paldang Service Water Source and argued for the strategic harmony of ‘protecting the water and keeping the local economy alive.’

There is no doubt that the Service Water Source for the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area enjoys the highest priority among all the water management policies and has received immense investments. During the 13-year span from 1996 to 2008, investments for the improvement of the quality of water of Lake Paldang amounted to 11 billion US dollars.

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Today, however, all of the money and efforts that have gone into Lake Paldang stand a very real chance of going to waste if the Four Major Rivers Project is carried out as planned.

The Project area currently includes Lake Paldang and surrounding water resources, although not in terms of securing water and preventing floods. Instead, the Four Rivers Project will replace the organic farm complex on the riverside with outdoor performance stages, picnic areas, exhibition areas, ecological gardens, and lawn parks.
To this day, the Korean Government contends that the organic farming complex is the main culprit behind the pollution of Lake Paldang, yet according to the farmers and independent analysts, the biggest contributor to the pollution is firstly from domestic sewage, and secondly sewage from the land. The proportion of the land used by organic farms in the area as compared to the total land mass is insignificant, and although the organic farmland is close to Lake Paldang – presenting a possibility that its pollution effect might be greater – the government’s label of the farms as the ‘main culprit’ is laughable at best, and scientifically improbable at worst.

The plan to remove the organic farmlands echoes hundreds of other planning mishaps and oversights in the Four Rivers Project, a plan being painted by international activists and planners alike as a full-fledged assault on the environment.

Even according to reports issued by the Korean Ministry of Environment: Land for Sports Activities, Public Recreation Areas, Public Roads, etc. pollute 30-50 times more than other types of land do, not to mention performing stages and exhibition areas to which many people tend to flock. Restaurants and recreational facilities, which have already been increasing in number, will also only increase more due to the influx of people visiting this area for the water-friendly facilities.

Meet the Farmers

Yo-wang ChoiMr. Yo-wang Choi graduated from college, got a job in the city, ran his own business for some time, and came to Dumulmeori to settle down in 2004. In the beginning he came alone without his family and did whatever he had to do to make a living, including working as a hired hand. 2 years later, his wife and 2 children joined him, and now his children are in 6th and 4th grades. His wife still commutes to Seoul and although the commuting is demanding for her, the family are satisfied with the rural life at Dumulmeori. Mr. Choi grows cabbage, kale, and cucumber.

Mr. In-hwan Lim came to Dumulmeori in August 2005, the year he became 40 years old. He had always wanted to return to farming when he got older. He thought if he were to become a farmer anew, he’d better be an organic farmer. He settled down in Dumulmeori, thanks to Mr. Choi’s recommendation. For the first 2 years, Mr. Lim lived with Mr. Choi, learning farming. He also worked as a delivery man at an agricultural cooperative to which other organic farmers belonged.


Mr. Gyu-seop Seo settled here in 1999. Mr. Seo would have his fortune told from time to time, and the fortune tellers always told him that he was destined to ‘live with soil.’ In fact, the whole time Mr. Seo was working in the city, he missed the soil. Therefore, to him, Dumulmeori was ideal. Mr. Seo got married and had his 2 daughters ‘Gaeul (Autumn)’ and ‘Haneul (Sky)’ here.


Mr. Byeong-in Kim worked as a military officer for close to 10 years, was discharged following an accident, and started working as an auto mechanic. Over the years, Mr. Kim then grew skeptical and pessimistic about competitive society and an increasingly polluted urban environment. After an acquaintance told him about organic farming, Mr. Kim began learning farming in Dumulmeori, working the land every weekend for 1 year in 2003. The next year, he settled down here. He said, “I had seen only people who lived for their own interest, not anyone like these young people here who live sacrificing their own interest. I was mesmerized by them and joined the agricultural cooperative to share my life with them.”

Report from Dumulmeori

A child carries water to the field at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

A child carries water to the field at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Organic farming means not only safe and clean farming, but more importantly healthy relationships with consumers. City dwellers trust Dumulmeori organic farming and deal directly with the organic farmers. Many of them come in person to experience farming and harvesting firsthand and feel nature. In other words, Dumulmeori is land not only of the farmers, but also of the consumers who trust Dumulmeori and cherish it.

In 2009 Dumulmeori farmers filed a suit against the Korean Government, which plans to expropriate the Dumulmeori farmlands for the Four Major Rivers Project, and were awarded a sentence in their favor in February 2011, a victory which stands alone as the only successful case against the South Korean Government regarding opposition to the Four Major Rivers Project.

The celebration was short-lived, however, as Yangpyeong-gun almost immediately appealed. The final decision from the appeals has yet to come, but in the meantime, the Four Rivers Project has continued forcibly. The construction for the Project is expected to begin in early June, right after the farmlands are placed under public trust on May 25th.

Receiving the Government’s compensation and moving to another place is not so easy as it seems. On top of the compensation coming in the form of a low-interest loan granted by the Government, it is nearly impossible to find land comparable to that of Dumulmeori in Gyeonggi-do with the money given to the farmers. Because land prices in Gyeonggi-do are so high, no farmer from Dumulmeori expects to be able to pay back the loan farming on another piece of land.

There is an uncanny tension in Dumulmeori, it is the calm before a storm, and a foreshadowing of the farm’s fate can be witnessed in the adjacent, larger ‘Jo-an-myeon’ Organic Farming Complex

In neighboring Jo-an-myeon, more than 40% of the construction for the Four Rivers Project is finished. Farmers there are experiencing increasing economic hardships because the Government, which promised the Jo-an-myeon farmers alternative farmlands, has so far failed to keep that promise.

Weekend farmers at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Weekend farmers at Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

“When the Government executes its policy forcibly, there is nothing we, the powerless farmers, can do. If we lie down in front of a backhoe to block it, will they not just lift our bodies out of the way with the backhoe and throw us into detention cells? Of course, after we get out of the detention cells, we will go on working the land and farming. They can take our bodies in custody, but our spirits will not be overcome.”
The farmers, or the ‘site experts’ as some call them, who have experienced this area and nature in person, point out the unrealistic nature of the Four Major Rivers Project point by point.

“As you know, the purpose of the Four Major Rivers development is quadruple: flood prevention, revitalization of the local economy, the securing of sufficient water for use, and the improvement of the quality of water. But it is clear that all of these are a bunch of crap. Local economy? They say that 100,000 jobs will be created because of the public works, don’t they? But just take a look at Buyeo.

There are 1000 farm families on 3300 acres of land. Usually the husband and the wife are the workers in each household, so you can say there are roughly 2000 workers working per day, and if you translate that figure into a year’s time, there are 720,000 local jobs per year. You revitalize agriculture, then the local economy is revitalized. But with the public works, outsiders take all the profits.

And flood prevention? There are no floods here. If this area is flooded, then it means the water level got so high that it spilled over the Paldang Dam. In fact, when damages occur, they occur not so much around the main course as around the tributaries. You have to service those parts, if you want to service anything at all. Lack of water? Here we store 94% even in the driest of seasons.

new government standards show intent to increase the level of water pollution

Improvement of the quality of water? If you build a reservoir, enclosing a body of water with walls, sedimentation occurs, which pollutes water eventually. If you block water there, rotten water flows right to the Paldang Dam, which is fatal to the Service Water Source.”

What the site experts say is proven by the recently amended River Statute Enforcement Ordinance. The Ordinance forbids greenhouses (vinyl houses) and grants permits to mayors and governors of provinces to install floating moorings in order to revitalize water recreation businesses. To the organic farmers who have contributed to the improvement of water quality, the Ordinance makes no sense. Furthermore, they are at a loss of words at the Government’s proposal to “set the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD, water pollution measurement) to 3 ppm by 2020.” With a current reading of 1.5 ppm, essentially the Government intends to increase the level of water pollution.

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Paldang Organic Farm, Doomulmeori, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang)

Restoring a dirty, industrialized riverside is acceptable to many of us, but if you ask the farmers who have settled and stuck around in Dumulmeori, or the city-dwelling volunteers who come out in droves to work the land each weekend, this area of riverside is working perfectly well without government rehabilitation. In this situation, the Government’s stern rule seems quite far from the rest of the world’s idea of “Democracy,” yet the Government of South Korea – democratic though it may call itself – argues necessity and apparently has the upper hand, with seemingly unlimited power to ensure their project is completed without proper local government or citizen input.

Dumulmeori farmers are still holding out this month, but if the courts fail to uphold the farmers rights through the current appeal process, it could mean the end of organic farming in this region, as well as the end of hundreds of miles of natural rivers and lush riparian corridors.


Report and Photos: Suhee Kang and Patrick Lydon
Translation: Taekyun Chung