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Planning authorities are investigating whether the tearing down of a mangrove at a north Lantau bay on Sunday was a breach of town planning rules.
Rare flora and fauna are protected under a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) designation covering Tai Ho Wan and surrounding land and streams.
The Planning Department said yesterday it would investigate whether felling of the mangrove by villagers protesting over restrictions on the use of their land had breached the rules.
"If it is proved to be unauthorised … we will take appropriate enforcement action," a department spokesman said, as villagers threatened more action if officials refused to meet them. Town Planning Board member Eddie Hui Chi-man said it was highly likely the villagers' actions had breached the rules.
"Any change [of terrain] is likely to violate the original objective of the statutory plan," he told Cable TV.
Tai Ho Wan and its three streams were designated but not zoned as a site of special scientific interest in 1999. Under interim zoning plans for the area gazetted in March, an SSSI covering 4.5 hectares was demarcated. No land, ponds or streams in the SSSI can be filled or diverted.
In protest, dozens of villagers brought in excavators and used machetes to chop down the trees at the mouth of the bay. Some reports said hundreds of trees and large shrubs were cleared.
The current SSSI, administered by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, aims to conserve and protect features of special scientific interest such as rare fauna and flora, but is not strictly enforced.
A breach of the Town Planning Ordinance could bring a fine of up to HK$500,000.
At stake is a 1.1 hectare plot of private communal land in the SSSI that is now partly submerged. An additional 0.3 hectares of dry private land south of the lot also falls within the SSSI.
Villagers say they want to farm the land again but their land-use rights will be restricted.
Residents blame construction of the North Lantau Highway in the 1990s for blocking discharge from the river and flooding coastal farmland, forming the mudflats and mangroves that prompted green groups and the government to recognise the site as one of high ecological value.
"The felling of trees [on Sunday] was 100 per cent conducted on private communal land," said indigenous villager Ray Lam of Ngau Kwu Long village. Similar protests would be held if senior government officials refused to meet them.
"You can call us impudent, but we have the rights. All we want now is to have the land zoned for agricultural use," Lam said. "Our voice was never heard by the government 15 years ago. We won't take this any more."
He said the government was trying to mislead the public by ignoring the fact that "half of the land inside the SSSI was privately owned communal land" which villagers would eventually want to farm again.
The Tai Ho stream and bay area was ranked by the government in 2004 as the third most ecologically important site in Hong Kong, following Mai Po Nature Reserve and Sha Lo Tung.