Punishment must fit the crime for eco-vandals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am

If you litter the footpath with a scrap of paper you risk an on-the-spot fine of HK$1,500. There is a lot to lose and nothing to gain. There are also laws to protect country parks and wilderness from degradation, such as development. The difference is that the people involved, from principals to employees, do stand to benefit one way or another. On-the-spot fines are not the answer. To make the punishment fit the crime, the penalties must be tough enough to prompt reflection as to whether the gain to be made from breaking the law is worth the risk. If not, the penalties are part of the problem, not the solution.

Examples are to be found in prosecutions following the public uproar over development of a site beside scenic Sai Wan beach on Sai Kung peninsula. The land was unzoned, but enclosed by conservation areas. A businessman bought it from owners of an abandoned village. Development resulted in illegal excavation of government land and pollution of watercourses. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department brought charges under the Country Park Ordinance against three drivers, four employees of a development company and a machinery supplier, for illegally transporting diggers across the beach. A court imposed fines from HK$450 to HK$800. Littering a street would have cost them more.

Not only are these fines derisory given the increased public awareness of the value of our natural heritage, but so are the maximum penalties of HK$2,000 and three months' jail the law provides for. The Lands Department brought charges against other parties for illegal excavation of government land and polluting watercourses. The same misgivings apply. The court imposed fines of between HK$1,000 and HK$35,000, when the maximum penalties are HK$50,000 and six months' jail.

Neither the sentencing nor the maximum sentences reflect prevailing public sentiment. Conservationists rightly point out that transport of the diggers was a deliberate violation of the law and not accidental trespassing. They want the Department of Justice to apply for a review of the sentences; the Lands Department is, at least, seeking legal advice on its next step. But that does not atone for the fact that much of the damage need not have happened anyway. It turns out to be a classic case of divided responsibilities and red tape preventing decisive action to enforce the law and safeguard the environment. Digging work had only just begun when AFCD officers visited Sai Wan in early June. Instead of stopping it they asked the Lands Department if it had approved development there; the latter's staff took another three weeks to visit and survey the area. It was another month before work was halted. The two departments give conflicting accounts of what went wrong. But a more proactive, interdepartmental approach is needed to combat eco-vandalism.

The Sai Wan case represents a quirk of history. Pockets of ancestral land were exempted from the country parks system. Those that defied zoning for agricultural or conservation use were left unzoned, leaving a loophole for unregulated development. The government has acted to close this loophole in Sai Wan and at some other sites through temporary protective zonings. More action like this is needed, along with a greater sense of urgency in response to environmental threats and tougher penalties to fit the crime and public expectations. The government could start by explaining why the person ultimately responsible for the illegal Sai Wan work - the one who authorised it - has not been prosecuted.