New Territories villagers must play by the rules

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 3:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 3:14am

Striking the right balance between development and the environment is easier said than done. It is even harder when conservation is seen as infringing on private property rights. In a protest against development restrictions in northern Lantau, angry villagers bulldozed an ecologically sensitive mangrove in front of media cameras on Sunday. While they are entitled to express their discontent, they should not do so at the expense of the environment. Their action has seriously damaged the habitat.

Unsurprisingly, the protest was greeted with outrage and condemnation. The government is rightly investigating whether town planning rules have been violated. Breaches are liable to a fine of up to HK$500,000.

Villagers are known for their determination to defend what they regard as their traditional rights. Over the years, they have made their point in various assertive manners, sometimes to the dismay of the public. Sunday's protest was staged with a view to drawing media attention and was backed by rural affairs leaders. The villagers probably think they have the right to do what they want in the New Territories. They are worried that the restrictions will curb their right to build homes on their land. To pre-empt the restriction, they tried to wipe out the mangrove habitat. To the regret of nature lovers, the environment was destroyed without justification. Images showed a substantial part of the mangrove, well known for its oyster-rich mudflats and horseshoe crabs, had been flattened.

The row underlines the conflict between conservation and property rights. If the villagers think their rights are unreasonably restricted, they can make representations to the Town Planning Board. The established procedures for zoning and land-use changes have served Hong Kong well.

The destroy-first mentality is hardly a balancing act. Villagers are required to resolve rows through the existing mechanisms. Officials should also step up communications with the affected parties and ensure that legitimate rights are not undermined.