kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 12:00am
 

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is an odd bureaucratic beastie, cobbled together over decades by happenstance and expediency. It's an organisation whose era has ended. Drastic administrative surgery is needed.


The old Ag and Fish core of the department should be hived off and placed under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. A&F staff now manage wholesale food and fish markets that obviously neatly fit into the FEHD fold.


The major need is to streamline the other part of the portfolio. Conservation and, most critically, the country parks, belong firmly under a powerful environment department.


This body would include the existing Environmental Protection Department. In addition to its present tasks of monitoring and controlling the purity of our water and air, disposing of our waste and trying to control noise, a significantly expanded and empowered environment department should also administer country parks and direct the entire thrust of ecological concern and protection of nature.


It should have tough powers and sufficient staff to zone, plan, manage, police and enhance country and marine parks, rivers, lakes, fish ponds, wetlands, water catchments, reservoirs and the harbour.


It's got a well-trained and dedicated core of cadres in the country parks ranger service of the AFCD. This would be a much more logical structure. The present situation is an accident of history.


In the 1950s, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department was a strapping bureaucratic giant. Water buffalos turned the cloying earth of 9,450 hectares of paddy fields that surrounded 680 thriving villages. Junks with flapping sails trawled the coast; their Tanka crews had not lived ashore for centuries. Providing marketing structures and social support was a prime official concern. But the world changed.


Hakkas by the thousands marched away from slogging toil in the paddy fields, heading for Britain to run fast-food restaurants. Villages by the score were deserted, fields lay fallow. The Tanka, many of them, headed for deep-blue waters.


By the 1980s, agriculture was virtually dead, with the exception of pig farming and flower growing, and the fishing fleet had dwindled. But still, Ag and Fish marched on like a bureaucratic ghost. It picked up responsibility for the country parks, and as an extension, conservation.


The present structure makes no sense and takes no heed of changing times. FEHD is quite capable of absorbing responsibility for the fishing industry and what little farming remains.


The major stress must be on protecting our environment, safeguarding the sanctity of the country parks, stopping the rape of our rural areas and the ravishment of our waters.


To do this, we need an environment department with teeth of a hungry tiger. And it should not be lumped in another awkward marriage, as at present, under a minister who also shares responsibility for transport and works, a situation bound to create conflicts of interest.


There's a lot of agreement that action is needed. Friends of the Earth director Mei Ng Fong Siu-mei disagrees with some of my restructuring ideas, but agrees conservation has suffered neglect, encroachment and abuse partly because of the ambiguous role of the AFCD with its divided loyalties, toothless enforcement powers and pitiful resources. 'It's time for a change,' she agrees.


The chairman of World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong, Markus Shaw, says rationalisation is long overdue. 'A properly resourced conservation and environmental department would resolve a historical anomaly and reflect new social realities and aspirations. Unquestionably, conservation needs its own, strong champion within government.'


Clive Noffke, a director of Green Lantau, says environmental protection and conservation should be a bureau in its own right, setting policy and putting those ideas into action in a holistic manner.


Of course, such notions are anathema to the entrenched interests of the concrete-and-be-damned brigade of government, the Lands, Building, Planning, Civil Engineering, Territories Development and similar departments that see beauty in endless expanses of concrete towers.


And land developers keen to turn fallow fields into profitable towers will also be implacably opposed. But there is a growing belief that such a move is inevitable. The sooner the better.


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