The new head of Hong Kong's country parks signed a green group's charter yesterday promising to protect "every inch" of the land he administers.
Tang King-shing, the former police commissioner and now chairman of the Country and Marine Parks Board, answered the challenge from Save Our Country Parks, an alliance of 20 green groups firmly opposed to the idea of building flats in the parks.
While the charter is not legally binding, activists said it amounted to a public commitment.
"It's a promise made publicly. He is now under moral obligation to defend our country parks," said Friends of the Earth director Edwin Lau Che-feng.
The issue erupted into a public debate after Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po floated the idea last month of building flats in parks to solve the housing shortage.
Tang, whose nomination was deemed controversial because of his government background, was attending the first meeting of the board that he chairs.
"[The board] will strive to protect our country parks in accordance with the law," he said.
The board is the statutory advisory body overseeing all of Hong Kong's 29 parks and has the power to approve construction within parks. Most of the nonofficial members of the board yesterday voiced strong objections to the development idea. Elvis Au Wai-kwong, an assistant director of the Environmental Protection Department, insisted the government had "no intention" to alter the status quo of the country parks.
Meanwhile, a little-known study has come to light showing many Hongkongers were willing to pay HK$100 a year to maintain and preserve country parks.
The University of Hong Kong questioned 613 people between August and October 2009.
The findings were published in the International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology last February.
It received little attention at the time as no one believed Hong Kong's parks would ever be under threat. Researchers said the study showed how highly people valued their parks.
The survey was not intended to be a fundraising proposal, said Professor Jim Chi-yung, of the University of Hong Kong.
"The aim was to estimate the parks' economic value, to raise awareness among policymakers and the general public of the poorly recognised economic benefits of conservation and to justify financial support from the government," he said.
The respondents were randomly selected from visitors to Pok Fu Lam, Shing Mun and Clear Water Bay country parks.
Their household incomes ranged from HK$10,000 to more than HK$40,000 a month.
They were asked if they would be willing to pay an annual fee to enhance the conservation and educational elements of the parks and how much they would like to pay if they could choose.
Only six per cent said they would not pay. Most were willing to give HK$95 to HK$133 a year.