Officials failing to protect Hoi Ha Wan marine park

Markus Shaw says laws that protect the marine park must be enforced

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 7:30am

There have been encouraging signs recently that the government is finally getting serious about law enforcement in rural areas. It's about time. Since the handover, we are one Hong Kong; the old delineation between the Hong Kong south of Boundary Street and Hong Kong north of the street no longer holds. Nor is it tolerable that laws that apply in our metropolitan areas are not enforced in rural areas.

But examples of the old mindset survive all over the New Territories. One is Hoi Ha village, which lies in Sai Kung Country Park, on the shoreline of Hoi Ha Wan - one of Hong Kong's few marine parks and arguably the finest. Hoi Ha Wan is also a "site of special scientific interest" - a statutory designation carrying a high degree of protection. But all is not well in Arcadia.

Corals are extremely sensitive to water quality, and it is no surprise that there are laws in place to protect the waters of Hoi Ha Wan. These laws say there should be no sewage discharge within 30 metres of a "watercourse", and no new sewage discharge within 100 metres of the site's boundary.

There have been repeated applications for small houses in the village, which were withdrawn after public objections principally on the grounds that they breach the laws for sewage treatment. The applications, once rejected, are merely resubmitted with minor amendments, and are processed by the authorities who ignore previous objections.

Concerned individuals have written to the Environmental Protection Department alerting officials to the fact that these applications breach the laws in relation to water pollution control. The department avoids the issues, ignores Hoi Ha Wan's status as a site of scientific interest and, apparently, considers that effluent discharged via a septic tank soakaway system is neither a discharge nor an effluent - contrary to the advice in its own documents. Since the Town Planning Board is not alerted to any problem, it continues to process the applications.

Additionally, there have been incidents of unauthorised tree cutting and building on government land. One tree-felling gang was recently caught red-handed. Police took names and photographs. Despite this, and evidence of other environmentally destructive activities at Hoi Ha, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has taken no effective action to stop such practices and no prosecutions have taken place.

In response to many such issues, the Friends of Hoi Ha was founded by residents David and Nicola Newbery. Yet, in return for showing genuine concern for the preservation of this area of natural beauty and biodiversity, they have been physically intimidated and threatened.

Where are the departments tasked by the community to protect Hoi Ha Wan? Several years ago, there was an extraordinary incident in which wardens from the conservation department were physically evicted from their post by indigenous villagers. With police protection, and accompanied by David Newbery, the wardens were eventually escorted back. Unfortunately, there has been no solidarity in return for residents on the receiving end of intimidation.

On the contrary, the department appears to be running away - it is planning to close down its part-time wardens' post in Hoi Ha village, replacing it with a visitors' centre 500 metres away. Over the past 10 years, many have called for a resident warden in the village, given the illegal activities that are continuously happening in the marine park. What will happen when the wardens move out of the village? So much for the rule of law.

It seems the authorities consider the Newberys and the Friends of Hoi Ha a nuisance. That they certainly are, but only to the extent of their having shown up the dereliction of duty by craven officials in various government departments, who are not doing their jobs. Hoi Ha Wan is the patrimony of all Hong Kong citizens. The authorities must clearly demonstrate their determination to protect it.

Markus Shaw is a businessman and environmentalist. This commentary first appeared in Ming Pao Weekly