The struggle to preserve Long Valley is destined to become an important chapter of Hong Kong's conservation movement. But that chapter may have a sad conclusion unless efforts to save the 36-hectare wetland are carried through to the end by putting in measures to maintain its ecological value forever.
Although the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation has been obliged to build a new rail line through the valley, at an additional cost of $2 billion - by means of a tunnel instead of a viaduct - fears remain that the site's environmental attributes could be jeopardised if farmers drained the land, which is privately owned, to push for commercial development. If they did, the huge cost of building the tunnel would be wasted.
To prevent that from happening, the Conservancy Association has proposed turning the area into an eco-tourism zone. The proposal involves enhancing the ecological value of the area by paying farmers seeding grants to restore agriculture at fallow plots. It is hoped that will lure more birds, making the whole area even more attractive to bird watchers and other nature lovers. In turn, revenues from eco-tourism will provide farmers with higher incomes.
Whether the idea will work remains to be seen. But it should be given a chance to work as Hong Kong tries to find a sustainable way of preserving its remaining sites of high ecological value, most of which are private property. Official estimates have put the cost of buying a dozen such sites at $70 billion. Even in the best of times, that would make it an unviable option, let alone at a time when plugging huge budget deficits will be the government's biggest task over the next few years.
Yet, the current policy of banning development at designated sites of high ecological value has bred frustrations for both owners and conservationists. The former are upset that they have been barred from exploiting the economic potential of their properties without being compensated, while the latter are concerned that some ecologically sensitive sites are fast losing their allure through prolonged neglect.
For example, the Sha Lo Tung Valley in Tai Po, which is home to 10 species of freshwater fish, 68 species of dragon flies and 159 of butterflies, has been threatened by deliberate setting of fires and use by off-road vehicle enthusiasts, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature. This is despite the fact that plans by developers to turn the valley into a golf course have been blocked by its designation as an environmentally sensitive site.
If Hong Kong is serious about conservation, the community must be prepared to pay for it. If it cannot afford to buy those sites of high ecological value, it should at least be ready to provide small grants to support schemes that can preserve them in a sustainable manner.