The lush farmland and tranquil waters of Long Valley in Sheung Shui are a far cry from the bustle of Hong Kong's corridors of power. But the peace and isolation of the rural setting hides its pivotal role in what is seen in some quarters as a turning point in the approach of Hong Kong authorities to conservation and planning. The defining issue in Long Valley's recent history was a row that had its roots in 1999, when the Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation proposed a 7.3km spur line to link up Sheung Shui and Lok Ma Chau to ease crowding at the Lowu crossing. The proposed spur line would have cut through the city's second-largest wetland, destroying the natural setting and the habitat of tens of thousands of wild birds. The 2.5-hectare valley is Hong Kong's second biggest wetland. About 11/2 times the size of Victoria Park, the valley is home to 210 species of birds, representing roughly half of the known species in Hong Kong. The valley also houses 97 types of butterflies and nine species of reptiles. Conservationists' determined resistance turned their battle with the railway company into a city-wide campaign to save the wetland. It was also considered to be one of the first times the government put the environment over economic development when it rejected the KCRC's proposal. After three years of struggle, the KCRC was forced to come up with an alternative plan. The 7.3km spur line will go underground for 4.3km from the existing Sheung Shui station and then rise to the surface at Chau Tau, where it will climb on a three-metre viaduct to connect to the Lok Ma Chau terminal. The $10 billion project costs $2 billion more than the first proposal and is expected to be complete by mid-2007. But that's not the end of the story on Long Valley. The Conservancy Association, one of the green groups that fought the battle hard, wants to use the wetland to prove that the concept of sustainable development works in Hong Kong. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The notion stresses that it's possible to achieve environmental, social and economic benefits by taking an integrated approach. The three aspects are equally important when making decisions. Shortly after the KCRC agreed to modify the proposal, the green group started brainstorming on how to help people living in the area benefit from the ecology of the land, believing the welfare of people and that of the environment should go hand in hand. Such an approach would also offer the best form of protection for the valley from future damage. 'It became clear to us that something must be done to address the livelihood issue of the indigenous villagers. KCRC's proposal created expectations on development. Though it didn't materialise in the end, we must act otherwise the valley's situation may deteriorate,' said Lister Cheung Lai-ping, chief executive of the association. On a separate front, the spur line row also inspired a young villager to look at his native land from a new perspective to fathom why the city dwellers fought so hard to stop the spur line from cutting through the valley. Last year, when he heard the association was organising an eco-tourism course for indigenous villagers, he called the green group and signed up. The participation of villager Wong Wai-yip was crucial to the eco-tourism programme. Because he's a village head, his participation eased scepticism and encouraged the hesitant to join the training. The association recruited some 20 villagers for the first programme that trained them into eco-tourism guides. Mr Wong, 34, was elected village head of Hakka Wai and Tsung Pak Long two years ago. 'I was born and raised here,' he said. 'I love the land. I'm obliged to preserve the tranquillity of my ancestor's land. It was interesting seeing the outsiders fighting hard to keep the KCRC from disturbing our place. I wanted to know why. But I'm just an ordinary person; I didn't know where to go to find out why this place is important. So I was excited to see a pamphlet on eco-tourism, because it said there would be professors teaching us the ecology of the valley.' Recalling the spur line row, Mr Wong was neither upset nor disappointed that the conservationists' action blocked them from selling their land to the KCRC, cashing in on development. 'There are people who are very upset. I was fine. If you own a dazzling diamond, then someone comes and wants to buy it from you, but in the end the transaction doesn't go through, you still own the diamond. It is the same case here. Land and cash are just fortune in a different form. I prefer to keep my land than selling it for any development.' Mr Wong is frank about how much he has learned after the three-month training course. 'I don't think I picked up the touring techniques well,' he said. 'The fact is, I'm not interested in making money through eco-tourism. The reason for signing up for the training was to know more about my land. And as a village head, it's my responsibility to understand the ecological value of the land and to help other villagers to have a better understanding of the place. 'We're not prepared to make big money from eco-tourism, so we're not going to entertain people who come because they want something to do on Sundays. We're only prepared to show Long Valley to the serious travellers who respect our land. We also worry that too many people will destroy the fragile balance of the valley, ruining the wetland.' The conservationists and the villagers agree that each tour will only have a maximum of 20 tourists and the number of tour groups for any day won't exceed four. The eco-tourism training lasted for three months. Twenty indigenous villagers from the village of the Long Valley area participated in the training. They were taught theories of eco-tourism, the application of eco-tourism in Hong Kong, the duties and skills of a tour guide, safety in the countryside, and the valley's ecology and history. The valley has also the best preserved Hakka walled villages in Hong Kong. The central hall used by one of the valley's long-time families, the Hau clan, is heritage-listed. Ms Cheung of the association said they were considering offering advanced training to graduates. Such courses may cover bird watching, and further eco-tour routes. The tentative plan was to start bird-watching training in winter when the flocks returned. Apart from training interested villagers as eco-tourism guides, the green group also persuaded the valley's farmers to embrace organic production, believing it's the way to keep farming of the valley competitive in the face of cheaper mainland produce. 'Long Valley is the biggest active agricultural land in Hong Kong, but it's very fragile,' Ms Cheung said. 'It's important to keep farming going on, otherwise the wetland will dry up and birds will lose their habitat.' The issue of the wetland being preserved stems back several decades, to when the Drainage Services Department built channels for two rivers that run through the valley. The aim was to prevent floods but it was the first step in upsetting the delicate wetland environment. 'It created permanent damage to the hydrology: water drains away quickly. So it's important to keep farming alive and active. By using cultivation and water, we keep the wetland alive,' Ms Cheung said. While the green group invited ecologists and eco-tourism experts to instruct the villagers, seasoned organic farming practitioners were recruited to advise the farmers on the role of organic farming and its marketing. 'Organic farming is not difficult; it's all about not using chemicals,' said farmer Chan Shu. 'I know how to do it. My worry is I don't know the market. I can't see the market whereas for conventional agriculture, I know where to sell my vegetables.' After more than 30 years working the land, Mr Chan, 54, signed a contract two months ago with the green group, committing to organic farming. But it took nearly a year to persuade him. And, so far, the association has managed to convince only three farmers to convert to organic farming. The other farmers remain sceptical about organic methods. Mr Chan experienced the boom times for vegetable growers in the 1980s, and survived the slump of the 90s when there was an influx of cheap mainland goods. The wholesale price of vegetables during the 1980s boom was up to seven times the price they fetched in the following decade. So when the farmer heard the KCRC might buy land for rail development, he was happy about their proposal - but frustrated when the plan was changed. 'I thought about abandoning farming,' Mr Chan said. 'But I'm old and growing vegetables is the only thing I know. Luckily, competition from the mainland has been less intensive in the past few years as there is also huge demand within the mainland for vegetables.' Ms Cheung said they would not give up on the organic farming idea and would continue to lobby for more farmers to participate. She said she was confident more would join as they saw the benefits gained by the first farmers to make the switch. The farmers who are working with the association are already brainstorming ideas for diversifying into more organic products so their produce won't be limited to vegetables. Ms Cheung said eco-tourism would boost the organic food business. 'We hope the eco-tourists will buy from the organic farmers when they're here sightseeing,' she said. 'We hope we can create a brand for Long Valley. We believe one day the valley will not be only an important freshwater wetland for birds; it will also have a thriving organic agriculture community. 'We have full confidence that thriving organic farming will attract young people to agriculture, allowing farming to go on in Hong Kong.'