No entry: villagers bar access to Lantau bay over environmental 'conspiracy'

Locked gate and abusive banners block path to oyster-rich mudflats in protest at 'conspiracy' by green groups and officials to halt development

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 4:54am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 12:09pm

Indigenous villagers are blocking access to a Lantau bay in protest at a "conspiracy" by green groups and the government to restrict development. They say it will remain off limits for three years.

The Post found a padlocked steel gate barring the path to Tai Ho Wan, known for its oyster-rich mudflats and horseshoe crabs. There were also warnings not to trespass and signs in English and Chinese, some using offensive language.

"From now on, you will not need to think about walking through our private land!" one banner read.

Another lashed out at environmental groups for "telling the government to zone our village as a conservation area".

Lantau resident Kevin Laurie asked why villagers had not been ordered to remove the blockade, which sits on the path where it runs through private land at Ngau Kwu Long, one of three villages that make up the San Heung rural community.

"The footpath is the only sensible and safe route [to the mudflats]," said the former police officer, who visits the area to study horseshoe crabs. "Tai Ho Wan belongs to the people of Hong Kong, not just the villagers."

Tai Ho Wan - which means big oyster bay in Cantonese and is now cut off from the sea by the North Lantau Highway airport link - is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Villagers fear an ongoing permanent zoning exercise will see the conservation area - some 4.6 hectares centred on the estuary of the Tai Ho river - stretched upstream onto privately owned land.

Under an interim development permission area plan covering 230 hectares, gazetted in March, the villages' development zones are limited to just 1.27 hectares, which residents say constrains their right to build small houses. A policy introduced in 1972 allows indigenous males over the age of 18 to build three-storey homes on ancestral land.

Records show that at least one submission to the Planning Department calls for the SSSI to be extended 50 metres upstream. However, officials stressed the DPA plan had not yet been approved. DPA plans are effective for three years before land-use zoning plans are agreed.

In a statement, the San Heung community, which also includes Pak Mong, Ngau Kwu Long and Tai Ho villages, said: "The government and fake environmentalists have long conspired to suppress us.

"We can no longer tolerate this situation and … have decided to protest against the unreasonable development permission plan."

An 81-year-old grandmother who has lived in her ancestral home in Pak Mong for more than 50 years and still makes her living from fishing, told the Post: "Our history goes back more than 300 years. It is not fair that we are now being told by so-called green groups what we can and cannot do. We will continue to block the road."

She said the government had ignored the plight of indigenous villagers on Lantau. When the Tung Chung highway to the airport was built, for example, the villagers were promised better infrastructure, she added. "We wanted a few more bus stops. Instead, they blocked off our access to the sea."

Her son has the right to build a small house, she said, but had been unsuccessful in getting planning approval. She said it was the same for more than 60 to 70 small-house permit holders in the San Heung community.

"My son cannot come back and live here now. He doesn't have the money or space now to build a house," she added.

Eddie Tse Sai-kit, a spokesman for the Save Lantau Alliance concern group, was aware of the blockade. He said the padlocked gate's proximity to the village made it intimidating enough to serve as an effective barrier.

He also noted that at least 70 per cent of private land in Tai Ho had been sold off to developers, with Sun Hung Kai Properties owning the majority.

"I have strong reservations that this protest is merely about protecting their villages and right to build," he added.

The Lands Department earlier said it was investigating if the road, over private land, was allowed to be blocked.

A department spokesman later confirmed that the footpath and gate were on private land held under a Block Government Lease. 

"It is not a breach of the relevant lease for the land owner to erect a gate on his private agricultural land," the spokesman said.