Environment protection is a community effort

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 November, 2010, 12:00am

Talk is cheap, it is said. And sometimes it is. We talk a lot about Hong Kong's natural beauty and environment and the need to protect it. We talk a lot about property rights and the rule of law and the need to uphold those core rights. But when it comes to actually putting a price - and penalty - on people who despoil the land and encroach on public property, that talk does not seem to come to much.

Take the HK$35,000 fine and eight-month suspended jail sentence imposed recently on a developer who dumped construction waste on land in the New Territories. The practice is a growing problem that blots the landscape and raises the ire of residents. A harsh penalty should have been expected, yet what was handed out was a fraction of the HK$200,000 maximum that is permitted under the Waste Disposal Ordinance. Fines given for the offence last year averaged just HK$2,411.

That and other recent high-profile cases of illegal development and damage have increased awareness of the need to send clear messages of deterrence. It means getting tougher with violators, and regularly reviewing fines and sentences. But figures show not enough of either is being done. Courts rarely impose jail sentences, and the fines they have been handing out fall far below maximums. First-time offenders can expect to pay from nothing at all to a few thousand dollars.

The laws themselves are sometimes outdated. In one case, a man unlawfully felled trees, excavated slopes, built a road and blocked a stream with a concrete bridge in Lo Lau Uk in Tai Po two years ago. The maximum penalty that could be imposed was only HK$10,000 and six months' jail and yet, despite the seriousness of the damage, he was fined HK$7,500. He was also ordered to pay the HK$374,119 cost of returning the area to as near as possible to how it had been, but authorities have yet to receive a cent.

Such penalties do not deter. Worse, they could be misconstrued as a sign of low regard for the environment. With the possibility of profits many times more than the fines being faced, encroaching on public land to build or dump waste is highly appealing. In effect, the prospect of a fine for a criminal act is now simply a business cost that has to be absorbed. A louder message needs to be sent that such behaviour is intolerable - not to mention illegal.

That rests with the government, lawmakers and the judiciary. They need to be in touch with community feelings and receptive to calls for change. It is clear that there is a heightened awareness of the need to protect our countryside. Between 2005 and last year complaints about waste being dumped on government land increased from 213 to 1,171, while those involving illegal excavation rose from 47 to 100. The South China Morning Post's new website dedicated to reporting abuses, citizenmap.scmp.com, has received more than a score of alerts since going online last week.

Citizen environmentalism is of value only if authorities respond decisively to what they are told. The government has to better co-ordinate the overseeing of the five ordinances most used to protect land. Laws have to reflect the importance of our natural surroundings, and aspirations towards them. Officials have to apply the legislation intelligently, and judges impose penalties that deter. It is a community effort. We are seeing that only from time to time. Authorities and the judiciary have to make examples of offenders. The loudest possible signal - with the highest possible fines - has to be sent to show how valuable our countryside is to us.