Property owners in Lantau's Tai Ho villages, where a conflict over conservation recently erupted, have sold up to 70 per cent of their land to developers for at least tens of million dollars, including sites zoned for conservation, property records show.
Amid criticism from an environmental activist who questioned whether villagers really wanted to restore farming on their land, as they have claimed, a rural leader insisted their property rights be respected.
On Sunday, some residents of the north Lantau villages of Pak Mong, Tai Ho and Ngau Kwu Long cleared part of a mangrove stand in a protest against a new zoning plan that would protect 4.6 hectares of land in the 230-hectare Tai Ho valley and estuary as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI). Most of the area covered is water, such as hillside streams or the estuary itself.
The valley is considered the third-most ecologically important site in Hong Kong, with a network of natural streams that supports more than 60 species of freshwater fish. The villagers feared the zoning restriction would impede their rights to develop and farm their own land.
However, land registry records show that most of the private land covered by the SSSI zoning exists on a mud flat at the water's edge. That included the single largest piece of private land, a 1.1-hectare plot of mud that floods at high tide.
Villagers said they wanted the right to restore their property to its former use as farmland.
However, records including an aerial photo taken in the 1960s and a modern map showed no land suitable for farming in the plot. That area is shown on maps as water. In a land lease from the late 19th century, the area was officially marked "waste".
The land registry indicated that the 1.1-hectare plot was owned by the Lam Tung Mau Tong, a communal entity holding properties of the Lam clan. The entity had pocketed HK$13.5 million in a forfeited deposit from a failed HK$45 million deal in 2002 to sell that "land" to a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Immediately to the south of the water's edge, in an area of dry, potentially usable land that would also be covered by the SSSI, several other plots were sold for tens of million dollars to other firms, including a company known as Tongking International as well as a local firm called Jet Channel Development.
Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of environmental concern group Green Sense, said records also showed that at least 70 per cent of the 39 hectares of private land in Tai Ho valley was sold to developers with close links to Sun Hung Kai Properties and Swire Properties in the 1990s. The two real estate giants had once proposed a high-rise development and ecological park at the valley, but the government did not back the idea.
"Most of their lands are in the hands of developers. It is hard to believe the villagers want to restore farming," Tam said.
Ray Lam, a spokesman for the villagers, admitted the private land was partially submerged.
"We don't know when we can farm and it may take many years for us to be able to develop it again," he said. But he said all that mattered was that their rights to farm should not be restricted under the SSSI zoning.
In a joint submission to the Town Planning Board this year, Sun Hung Kai, Swire and Hongkong Land proposed the idea of building housing on the east and west sides of the Tai Ho Valley.
"The land ownership within the Tai Ho Valley makes it important that some form of balance between development and conservation be reached," it read.
A Planning Department spokeswoman said they were still investigating whether the villagers had violated any rules.