Pollution fighter flees bad air

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am

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Eric Bohm always feels outraged when he sees coach and car drivers leave their engines running outside his office next to the Peak Tram station in Garden Road, Central.

They are in breach of the law against idling engines and, if he isn't in a hurry, he will go out and challenge the drivers to switch off.

But not any more.

The 68-year-old chief executive of WWF Hong Kong, the city's largest green campaign group, is leaving the city he has spent the past eight years trying to save from further environmental degradation.

And his departure is a direct result of that continued degradation.

'My wife has asthma and the air quality here is not good. She had pneumonia twice last year, triggered by bad air and irritation. So I say enough is enough,' he said.

Bohm, a Canadian who has been in Hong Kong since 1981 and worked as a financial controller before joining the WFF. He will migrate to Britain with Diane, his wife of 44 years, and be reunited with their daughter.

Bohm said he was reluctant to leave the city and would miss many things - the food, the people, the opportunities and the ice hockey team he founded.

But his disappointment over the government's inability - and lack of courage and determination - to address air pollution has finally become intolerable.

He hopes matters will change under the new government of chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying, who, along with the environment secretary he will appoint, should have the 'courage of conviction' to defend good environmental policy.

He said Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration lacked vision. It took the wrong approach by filling the city with more highways, another airport runway and more concrete. He said: 'I hope C. Y. Leung's government will come in with [a vision of] what Hong Kong should look like and get that message across to the public.'

Bohm said the problem was not that citizens did not care about the environment, but that the political system had become a stumbling block to environmental progress.

He cited the idling-engine ban as an example. The ban was heavily toned down after a political outcry from the transport sector.

'There is a very high level of public participation in Earth Hour. You know from it [this campaign] that the Hong Kong public is on that wavelength. So what is the problem?' he asked. 'The problem is the political representation system, which looks after vested interests before it looks after the general [public's] interest.'

He hoped a different dynamic would be introduced in 2017 with expected universal suffrage.

Bohm joined the WWF branch in 2004 and led it in persuading the government to introduce a trawling ban in Hong Kong waters and finish the Hoi Ha Wan education centre.

It was also involved in the setting up of two conservation sites in Fujian and Guangdong under the Ramsar convention, which calls for the maintenance of the ecological character of wetlands.

He also left the group in a much stronger financial position with what he terms 'the right people in the right places'. But he has one big disappointment - the hostility to his group over its involvement in the controversial Fung Lok Wai wetland development in Deep Bay.

'It surprised me. And the anger shown to WWF Hong Kong I found very disappointing,' he said. 'We were seen as an enemy and one of the green groups even wrote on Facebook calling on people to withdraw donations from us ... a very infantile response to a difficult situation.'

Bohm also defended WWF's pragmatic relationship with Cheung Kong, the developer with which the green group teamed up for the project, supported by the government's conservation policy.

He said the partnership ensured the developer would honour its pledges to conserve part of the wetland. But the partnership also made some people uneasy, with the developer seen as a manifestation of 'property hegemony'.

However, Bohm asked: 'What are you going to do? Are you going to shut them down? You can't because they are reality. You have to deal with the reality in a situation that you are in. You have to raise a noise when things are bad, but somehow you have to work with the existing system.'

While Bohm had his ups and downs in his work, he was able to stick to his motto of living through any crisis. That's especially so when settling in a new environment.

'I say to everybody moving to Hong Kong, the first thing is that you do is not lose your sense of humour because things are different and unique here.

'You have to learn to laugh at yourself because you can't transplant Canada into Hong Kong,' he said.

Bohm recalled how his wife burst into tears and cried for help at a ParknShop outlet after she was told the supermarket could offer neither parking nor delivery - services provided by most Canadian retailers.

Despite minor inconveniences - one of which was removed when ParknShop introduced a delivery service - Bohm still believes in the city's social and cultural strengths.

'It might take a long time to develop a business and social relationship. But once you have developed it, the need for a lawyer will disappear because everything is done with your integrity,' he said.

He recalled when a Chinese friend asked him and his wife to be guardians of their son while they were in the process of migrating to Australia.

'I am very honoured as I am outside of the culture, but here the family offers this responsibility to me. I am very touched by it,' he said.

Bohm, who is also a trustee of St John's Cathedral, will leave the WWF next month.