Conservation costs, but inaction costs more

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2003, 12:00am

Development has taken its toll on Hong Kong's beautiful harbour, rolling green hills and air quality. In celebration of Earth Day, our writers look at ways to reverse the damage

A satellite photo of the Pearl River Delta shows Hong Kong as a green oasis at the edge of an increasingly urbanised and industrialised region. Hong Kong's green spaces, country parks and coastal areas are invaluable assets, not only in terms of fresh air, amenities and scenic value, but because of the habitat they offer to an extraordinary diversity of wildlife. Who would think this city of skyscrapers was home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals - in some cases their only home on earth?

Yet Hong Kong's wildlife and wild areas are under constant stress due to ever-growing pressures for development. Hong Kong had the wisdom and foresight in 1974 to set aside 40 per cent of its land as country parks, for conservation and recreation. However, many areas of high ecological value are actually outside the country parks.

Many wetlands (fishponds and former paddy fields), woodlands, streams, and marine and intertidal habitats have little or no legal protection. These are being gradually degraded and destroyed, with sometimes irreversible consequences.

Government policy for the protection of these valuable habitats has been under review for several years, but still there is no sign of any concrete action. In his 2000 policy address, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa pledged to develop a comprehensive nature conservation policy and consult the public within a year. In this year's policy address, he again pledged to 'promulgate in 2003 a comprehensive nature conservation policy including practicable measures to better conserve ecologically important habitats in close partnership with academics and non-governmental organisations'.

Why is it taking so long to come up with a workable and effective conservation policy? The issue is not helped by the fact that the department in charge of conservation, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), is underresourced and lacking in leadership. It is unwilling to take on New Territories landowners opposed to more protection of rural areas which would restrict development, or their own colleagues in the more powerful works departments. So, for years the AFCD has sat on the issue of conservation of areas outside country parks.

In some exceptional areas, such as Sha Lo Tung in the northern New Territories and Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung, where imminent development has threatened areas of unique ecological, heritage and landscape value, the government has intervened by zoning these areas for conservation under the Town Planning Ordinance. However, this is not a long-term solution since it only gives partial protection. It prevents development, but not human activities such as recreational war games - a policy that can be detrimental to ecological value and is at best a passive form of protection.

In this year's policy agenda, the chief executive pledged to consider the introduction of a rating system for ecological values in various locations. There is a limited number of highly valuable sites that need emergency protection, most of which are in, or adjacent to, lowland village areas. Some of these sites are privately owned, and must be acquired to ensure their long-term protection.

While the government regularly expropriates land for public purposes such as building roads, reservoirs and new towns, it has never considered conservation a public purpose. Yet, what could be a clearer public purpose than the conservation of species and habitats for the benefit of future generations? To avoid an open-ended drain on the treasury, expropriation of land for conservation as a public purpose could be limited to about 10 priority sites.

The government needs to bite the bullet and recognise there must be some financial outlay for conservation. While this may not seem the appropriate time, because of Hong Kong's growing government deficit, the current downturn in the property market means this is actually the best time to be buying up land for conservation.

Conservation creates tangible economic benefits. The quantifiable conservation value of Hong Kong's natural resources could be as much as HK$6.5 billion annually. Ecotourism, education and enjoyment of outdoor recreation provide both direct and indirect economic value.

Ecotourism alone could increase Hong Kong tourist receipts by HK$4.3 billion a year, if even a small proportion of our visitors could be convinced to extend their stays by one day to enjoy the countryside. The quality of the natural environment and the existence of wild and unspoiled tracts of land affect people's willingness to live and invest here. On Earth Day 2003, Hong Kong needs to be reminded that all life and economic activity depends on the biosphere. We are not the only inhabitants of this planet and we owe it to ourselves and our children to protect and conserve what little remains of our dwindling life-support system.

Lisa Hopkinson is head of research at the Civic Exchange think-tank