Tough penalties needed for rural vandals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2008, 12:00am

Our community treasures the countryside. Those who despoil it for personal gain deserve a heavy fine and possibly a prison sentence. Yet, this was not the message that was sent by Tsuen Wan Court yesterday. For building an illegal concrete crossing that devastated a pristine section of the Upper Tai Po River near the Wilson Trail, decoration worker Chan Sai-hin, 63, was ordered to pay a fine of HK$6,500 and another HK$9,588 for the cost of restoring the stream. He had previously been fined HK$1,000 by another court for cutting down trees at the crossing.

The penalties amounted to a slap on the wrist, not a sufficient deterrent. All these offences could have landed Chan a maximum of one year in jail and top fine of HK$50,000. Yet, the courts in both cases chose to be lenient with him. His guilty plea was a mitigating factor for the magistrate yesterday. So was the fact that the stream had been restored to its original state. The defence lawyer said Chan wanted to build a house for himself in the area but there was no road to access it. One reason is that the site is greenbelt land. The head of a nearby village has submitted a development plan to rezone it to build village houses, and the illegal road Chan had built was included in the plan. The Town Planning Board said it was still processing the application.

The court was told Chan had acted alone and there was no evidence presented to indicate otherwise. It is not clear if he was aware of the rezoning application. But his readiness to destroy a scenic area and disregard zoning laws is, sadly, not uncommon among some New Territories villagers. But for the green groups that exposed the case, it might never have come to light.

The authorities should deploy more officers to patrol the countryside and report any suspicious building activities. And if manpower and resources are sometimes strained, they should step up co-operation with green groups that regularly organise outdoor activities and can help monitor such places. Meanwhile, the courts need to impose tougher penalities to send a clear message that wanton destruction of the environment will not be tolerated.