Rural works must respect natural heritage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2006, 12:00am

Late governor Murray MacLehose needed all the persistence and endurance of the keen hiker that he was to push through the legislation in 1975 that created country parks. He had to overcome opposition from rural landowners and big property developers to the policy, which has had a profound impact on the way Hong Kong people spend their leisure time. It is thanks to this lover of the unspoiled ranges of the New Territories that 40 per cent of the land area of Hong Kong is now preserved in 23 country parks covering more than 41,000 hectares.

It is doubtful that Lord MacLehose could have envisaged that, decades later, a threat to the natural beauty of one of the people's greatest assets after our harbour - itself diminished and still subject to reclamation and waterfront development - would come not from entrenched self-interest but from where it was least expected.

As we report today, nearly $200 million of taxpayers' money is being spent each year on concreting vast stretches of country trails that have served the people well for generations. The government provides the money through assorted departments for what green groups describe as the taming of Hong Kong's once-rugged network of hiking trails. Some would call it legal vandalism of country parks. Paving-stone stairways and walkways are being laid along remote trails, destroying the natural serenity and creating conditions for erosion during the wet season.

The money spent by district councils on these projects of dubious environmental worth comes from a rural public works programme introduced in 1989 to improve infrastructure, particularly in remote areas. The projects all fall below the $15 million ceiling, above which an environmental impact assessment is required. In some cases, indigenous villagers and absentee landowners stand to benefit from the work through a rise in rural property values as a result of improved access. In every case the projects provide jobs. As a result, the work has been accelerated in recent years, since unemployment rose in the construction industry. In his policy address in October, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen pledged a further $190 million for the programme this year to create 480 jobs for the construction industry.

It may be argued that some of these projects are improvements because they upgrade access to country parks for a wider cross-section of the community, including hikers with little or no experience, and help promote eco-tourism. There is a case for balancing the interests of serious hikers with those less experienced, who are only just discovering the joys of strolling in splendid solitude along beautiful hillsides - some just 30 minutes from downtown Kowloon. There may be a place, here and there and in the interests of safety, for paved steps and such prudent aids as guard rails, warning signs and emergency phones.

The enthusiasm to pave over trails may be well meant and does create jobs. But the government and the district councils should strike the right balance between natural heritage values and pragmatic politics. The approach adopted in other countries anxious to preserve what remains of their countrysides may point the way forward. Wherever possible, they make trail improvements blend in with the countryside by using local natural materials or wood chips. Hong Kong should use its ubiquitous concrete only as a last resort or for the sake of public safety.

Part of the problem that green groups have with the onslaught of cement is a lack of transparency. They complain that it is difficult to obtain information about planned projects from the government and the district councils so that they can make their views known. More transparency would lead to more inclusive policymaking that properly weighs the interests of the community with the irreplaceable value of our natural heritage.