Destruction in paradise
Hong Kong’s beautiful country parks are slowly being targeted by private developers. Shirley Zhao explores the legal loopholes
If you go down to Sai Kung today you’ll be in for a big surprise. Cast against the lush foliage of neighbouring mountains, and overlooking a beautiful coastline of thriving mangroves and emerald waters, an ugly patch of land as large as a football pitch lies stripped and naked in the noonday sun, its once green vegetation having been cleared by opportunistic developers.
“I love this place for its undisturbed nature,” says Wong Chi-hung, a frequent hiker, “but that patch of land without trees is just like a tear in the face of a beauty.”
At the northwestern edge of the Sai Kung East Country Park, in the privately owned but uninhabited To Kwa Peng village (the only place in Hong Kong with eight different variations of mangroves), you will find the latest example of the city’s environmentally fragile scenic spots becoming endangered by private development.
In order to protect these sites, the Country and Marine Parks Board last month proposed that private lands should be included in the definition of “country parks”, making it possible for a total of 1,300 hectares of private land across 54 locations near to, or enclosed by, country parks to become incorporated into the parks themselves, providing they fulfill certain criteria such as landscape quality, recreation potential and conservation value. Essentially, this would restrict private landowners from development projects without prior permission from the government.
“Many privately owned sites within the country park enclaves are of high conservation value,” says Alan Leung Sze-lun, conservation manager of WWF Hong Kong. “They need to be better protected. It’s not a matter as to who owns the land.”
While environmentalists applaud the proposal, many locals from the New Territories, where most of these private sites are located, feel dissatisfied.
“If you had bought land here,” says Man Chen-fai, vice chairman of the Tai Po District Council, “and suddenly you were told that you cannot do anything with it, how would you feel? It’s like it had never been yours. We support environmental conservation, but we also want compensation. The government shows no intention of paying us, so of course we object [to the proposal]. Some people call us unreasonable. Why? It’s hatred towards the rich.”
Man is urging the government to establish a collective fund for environmental protection. He also suggests other ways to make the process fair, such as land exchanges, land loans, and co-developing the sites between the government and private landowners.
Ng Hei-man, a senior campaigner officer for local environmental group the Conservancy Association, says the government needs to consult the public, as well as negotiate with the landowners, about the usages of private land.
“The proposal is not easy in practice,” says Ng, “because it involves scientific studies, negotiations, compensations, and even possible village relocations. It’s bound to become a complicated process requiring a long period of time before it can be carried out.”
Worried that developers will speed up their projects while the government ponders the proposal, Ng says the departments concerned should first include all the sites in the Development Permission Area (DPA) plans under a three-year effective period whereby developers cannot undertake projects without the government’s approval.
“This is the fastest and easiest way to temporarily protect these sites while we work on the proposal,” says Ng. “It needs to be done as soon as possible. Some sites have already been developed and harmed, and we cannot rewind time. But we can and must do our best to protect them from further harmful development, and other undeveloped sites from the risk of being developed.”
Since the introduction of the DPA plan, only six of the 54 sites – namely Tin Fu Tsai of the Tai Lam Country Park, So Lo Pun of the Plover Cove Country Park, and Pak Lap, Pak Tam Au, To Kwa Peng, Sai Wan and Hoi Ha of the Sai Kung East and West Country Park – have been included in the plans. However, even the DPA has been helpless to stop some developers.
According to the Planning Department, up to now, the Town Planning Board has received 12 planning applications for building 52 small houses in Hoi Ha, To Kwa Peng and Pak Tam Au. Among the applications, one was approved because the houses were planned to be built within the house cluster of a village, eight were deferred, and the remaining three, of a total of 45 small houses in To Kwa Peng, had their applications recently adjourned.
According to Tanya Chan, Chairman of the Hong Kong Island Branch of Civic Party, small village houses should be owned only by local villagers. But there are only 15 registered To Kwa Peng villagers, which makes her question “who would ultimately become the residents” of these 45 houses.
Before the applications, To Kwa Peng had been subjected to intermittent harmful development, and it was not until January this year that the site was finally included in the DPA plan.
The urge to protect private land within the country park enclaves has become a growing public concern since last July’s disclosure of the environment of Sai Kung’s Tai Long Sai Wan, one of the city’s best-loved and untainted beaches, being severely damaged by billionaire Simon Lo Lin-shing’s project of building a private retreat. The fiasco, followed by a series of similar disclosures at other environmentally sensitive locations, immediately drew the government’s attention. As a result, Sai Wan was included in the DPA plan in August last year.
1. Mui Tsz Lam
Nestled within the Plover Cove Country Park enclave in northeastern Hong Kong, Mui Tsz Lam is one of 54 official listed priority sites for enhanced conservation. According to the Conservancy Association, the site’s owner, New World Development Company, planned to build a caring centre for the elderly, but was turned down by the Town Planning Board in 2008. Last year, people found part of the site surrounded by wire fencing, raising concerns that the site would be secretly developed.
2. Tin Fu Tsai campsite
Located within the Tai Lam Country Park in the western New Territories, the campsite was found stripped of its vegetation in November 2008. The site of Tin Fu Tsai has been included in the DPA plan since January 2011.
3. So Lo Pun village
In July 2008, around 400 trees were found trimmed back within the Plover Cove Country Park village enclave. The village committee later admitted they wanted to build a lychee orchard at the site. Last September, the Town Planning Board included So Lo Pun in the DPA plan. The place is known for its abundance of rare species of plants and animals. It is also a haven for butterflies.
4. Shui Mong Tin forest
Situated in the Ma Shi Chau Special Area in Tai Po, this forest was drastically felled by the site’s developers in September 2008. The following year, the site was turned into a columbarium.