In a temporary headquarters erected amid the lush foliage that still surrounds parts of the Ho Chung River, more than a dozen men square off around a large table in an atmosphere more boardroom than bucolic. Phones buzz, fingers jab at charts and diagrams and voices are raised. It might just be the most action this tranquil corner of Sai Kung has ever seen. The Ho Chung Valley is one of the lesser-known front lines in the government's battle to reshape Hong Kong without incurring the wrath of the city's residents. It is the larger, more ambitious attempts to remodel the city that spark the most vociferous protests - think the relocation of Queen's Pier, the ongoing Victoria Harbour reclamation and the redevelopment of the ex-police married quarters in Central. But every day, work continues on dozens of smaller projects that, collectively, will have a profound impact on Hong Kong's landscape, particularly in rural areas. The effects of these 'improvements' are already obvious to anyone visiting the country parks: retaining walls prop up hillsides; paved paths and metal railings snake up remote peaks; concrete drainage channels slice through valleys and forests. According to the Home Affairs Department, funds disbursed under its rural public works programme, which aims to 'upgrade the infrastructure and improve the living environment' in countryside areas, reached HK$122 million this year. The Drainage Services Department (DSD) says annual spending on flood-prevention works, which has averaged HK$500 million to HK$700 million since 2000, will surge this financial year to about HK$1.5 billion - enough to buy a lot of concrete. With so many projects underway, people are taking notice and the authorities have had to fine-tune an approach to rural development that has rarely been questioned. The Ho Chung gathering, which includes more than a dozen officials and engineers, is taking place largely for the benefit of one man: long-term Sai Kung resident Eric Taylor, who, horrified by the DSD's ongoing attempt to widen the Ho Chung River, launched a campaign against the work in the press. In a letter that appeared in the South China Morning Post on February 14, Taylor called the department the 'most prolific destroyer' of Hong Kong's riparian environments and argued its 'vandalism' in Sai Kung had driven away native flora and fauna, such as the nesting kingfisher and barking deer. The department's response was swift and relatively genial; Taylor would be welcome to visit the Ho Chung work site so its engineers could justify what they were doing on the spot. When the meeting moves outdoors, it's easy to see why Taylor is upset. The Ho Chung River spills from Sai Kung's wooded peaks and winds past a rusting water station, Ho Chung Village and the historic Che Kung Temple on its 1.6km journey to the ocean. A road already hemmed the river in on one side; the other was covered by a patchwork of drooping trees, flowers and thick grass. But not any more. Along a 600-metre stretch of the waterway, diggers have carved up the bank, breaking it down to unruly heaps of earth and rubble. The trees have gone and the river laps forlornly at piles of rocks and a half-finished retaining wall. Tarpaulin barriers have been erected to spare nearby houses some of the noise and dust kicked up by construction. On this quiet, misty morning, the work looks like an act of wanton destruction. However, according to the DSD representatives and the consultants gathered, the project is rational and well planned. In fact, the Ho Chung drainage improvement works are being held up as an example of the government's increasingly open, environmentally conscious approach to development in rural areas. With a detailed slide presentation, Taylor is told why, in its natural incarnation, the Ho Chung simply isn't big enough. The banks pushing up against Ho Chung Village are what the government has termed a 'flooding blackspot', having suffered at least four major incidents in recent years, prompting a torrent of complaints and calls for action from residents. The river's capacity has been diminished further by sediment and various constructs left by generations of settlers, such as small dams and ponds used to house fish. The officials explain that a wide variety of options were considered but the only feasible course of action was to dig up sections of the bank and widen the Ho Chung by 10 metres or so, rendering it capable of absorbing shock tides or the torrential rains of the monsoon season. The presentation notes the project went through a painstaking public-consultation process that started in 2003, with district councils, rural committees, villagers and environmental organisations all given a chance to voice suggestions or raise concerns. Their worries weren't just heard, but acted upon - some of the key features of the improvement works, including fish ladders and the one-for-one replacement of the trees that the project will remove, have resulted from public requests. Alan Ip Wing-cheung, chief engineer at the DSD's project management division, says all this is solid evidence the government no longer engages in construction for construction's sake. As recently as a few years ago, Ip concedes, debates over rural works didn't extend far beyond the Legislative Council. 'Now we're consulting individual village representatives. The green groups didn't even exist. Now we have to talk to them.' Plans for similar 'drainage improvement' of the nearby Pak Kong River were recently scaled down significantly, for instance, after homeowners along its course told the department they would rather live with a higher flooding risk than a concreted waterway. Contractors also insist times have changed. When the 'old thinking' dominated, engineers were 'not doing [public consultation] consistently', admits David Lui Man-wai, an executive director at Metcalf & Eddy, the environmental engineering arm of Maunsell AECOM. Maunsell is the consulting firm steering the Ho Chung project. But now, he says, there's 'huge machinery' in place to make sure any concerned department, district or person gets a chance to comment every time a building team gets ready to pick up its shovels. 'Even during the construction stage we're still meeting with representatives [of the public] and trying to satisfy their requests,' says Lui. 'I can put my hand on my heart and say we've ... grabbed every chance we could to try to explain ourselves.' This isn't just candidness, but the rules; most government agencies now require project proposals to be displayed prominently on community notice boards and for people to be given a few weeks, often at town-hall-type meetings, to voice objections. Any concerns are supposed to be taken up by the involved departments and district committees, and before construction commences. Larger or particularly sensitive developments have to get a thumbs-up from the Environmental Protection Department. The Home Affairs Department also says it's mandatory, especially in rural areas, for any infrastructure to blend into the surroundings; preference should be given to natural colours and the use of concrete 'avoided as far as possible'. But while these policies work on paper, many of the people monitoring Hong Kong's countryside believe the reality is different. Markus Shaw, chairman of WWF Hong Kong, commends the government and developers for putting on a more accessible face but says the administration continues to support a cement-intensive approach towards the preservation of Hong Kong's countryside. 'So many of our infrastructure projects are engineering led,' he says. 'There's still too little appreciation of environmental impact or aesthetic impact. You look at some of the road projects we have, or the way that we've used our waterfront, and what's going on in rural areas is a smaller-scale reflection of that. Too many engineers don't really understand you can reach the same objectives in a more sensitive way.' There are plenty of examples; Shaw points to the 'unsightly' metal handrails that dominate parts of the relatively straightforward trail from Lantau's Discovery Bay to Mui Wo as a particularly 'egregious' one. Another was a highly controversial attempt late last year by the Southern District Office to pave the final section of the Hong Kong Trail, leading to Hong Kong Island's Big Wave Bay Village. As in Ho Chung, officials claimed they were acting on behalf of local residents; gripes had been received about the sorry state of the footpath and debris and mud tumbling into the village after heavy rains. According to the office, a series of 'open, informal' meetings on the issue found villagers generally supported concreting a particularly problematic 99-metre section of the trail, and the builders were soon out in force. But the district government hadn't counted on the anger a bit of paving would stir up among Hong Kong's sizeable hiking community. Irate walkers and nature-lovers deluged the government with complaints, slamming officials for opening what George Christofis, one of the leading dissenters, refers to as a 'scar at the end of the Hong Kong Trail, an insult to the trail and the Hong Kong people'. Taken aback, district representatives agreed to restart the consultation process and staged another town-hall meeting, this one dominated by hikers. Based on the additional feedback, 'the decision was taken not to proceed with more concreting ... in the hope that the works carried out thus far would be able to address the ... original complaint[s],' a spokesman for the Southern District Office says. One could see this as further evidence of the government's openness to different views, another indication that its consultation mechanisms work. The trail to Big Wave Bay will remain largely untouched; hikers have stopped the concrete in its tracks. But Christofis isn't convinced. Promises to respect the natural state of the trail, made when the project was originally conceived, fell by the wayside and the affair shows officials are still prepared to use 'a few complaints as an excuse to launch large building projects', he says. 'They were very slow to respond to objections and it took a huge amount of time and effort for them to stop.' Indeed, the project is classed as dormant. 'Should the works carried out so far fail to stem the flow of mud and debris and the condition of the footpath deteriorate to the extent that it poses danger to users of the trail, further remedial works ... may need to be initiated,' the spokesman says. However, any further work would involve 'another round of public consultation involving all interested parties, and engaging a consultant to study how best to carry out the works concerned with minimal impact on the natural environment'. Ronald Ki Kin-yan, a member of a group of nature-lovers known as the Hong Kong Adventurers, has also managed to put a stop to some rural development plans but, like Christofis, found the experience troubling. In late 2005, Ki was trekking through a nearly deserted section of Sai Kung East Country Park when he came across a lonely notice attached to a board in the village of Pak A. The notice invited comment on a proposal to cement a path from Pak A to another village, Tai She Wan, to improve access and transportation for residents. A noble enough goal, it would seem, but, as Ki moved quickly to point out to the Sai Kung District Lands Office, Tai She Wan is basically in ruins, an uninhabited 'ghost town' that few people would have any reason to visit. And the people of Pak A are not exactly cut off from the outside world. Another footpath, which was 'improved' in 1998, connects the village to a road and residents can reach Sai Kung town and other areas by boat, using perfectly serviceable piers. Ki wrote an e-mail to the local lands office arguing any development in the area would be 'intrusive, unacceptable' and 'serve no meaningful purpose', and was soon backed up by protests from dozens of fellow hikers and naturalists. 'From a hiker's point of view, [government] improvement works always involve concrete and often large metal railings. They're very unnatural,' Ki says. 'They're not necessary for public safety or the benefit of the environment.' After eight weeks of debate, Sai Kung officials agreed to scrap their plans for the path. Ki says he is pleased with the victory but realises it all came about because of his chance discovery - and that similar works proceed unhindered in other remote parts of Hong Kong. 'For a lot of rural projects,' says the WWF's Shaw, 'what tends to happen is that a little notice goes up somewhere it's difficult for people to see ... [authorities] don't make tremendous efforts to bring them to public attention. I've come across many examples like these, where a lone hiker will send me an e-mail and say, 'Did you know this is going on?' That's why a lot of these works slip through the net.' The widening of the Ho Chung River, of course, is too large an undertaking to pass unnoticed. So, as the project team again reassures Taylor, no effort is being spared to keep the public informed of its progress and to resolve any disagreements that arise. Maunsell has already agreed to alter the work schedule to accommodate a Ho Chung Village resident who works at night and needs to sleep during the day. River-dwelling fish that might be affected by the project are being housed comfortably until the work is over. Exactly 190 trees will be planted to replace the 180-something that contractors have had to dig up. Gabion walls - stones held loosely together in wire bundles - and 'grasscrete', perforated cement capable of supporting some plant life, will be used wherever possible to help revive the bank of the river. The consultants' piece de resistance is an artist's impression of what the river will look like when they're finished. The pictures are impressive; pedestrians lounge on solid-looking flood protection walls; the Ho Chung becomes an orderly waterway snugly ensconced in smooth cement and lined with grass and impeccably trimmed trees. But it fails to win Taylor over. He's angry that the work will include a massive concrete ramp that officials argue is necessary to provide occasional vehicular access to the river, for dredging purposes or to remove rubbish. He believes the DSD could have left the riverbank intact, perhaps by dredging the riverbed or placing tunnelling under a nearby road that could allow water to escape. 'You've not convinced me one bit,' he tells the engineering team. 'It strikes me as over-engineering by consensus. The plants might be fine for an urban park but look totally out of context in this environment. It's not a natural bank, anyone can see that, and it's not going to support any real ecology ... all I'd ask you to do is let nature take its course.' 'If I could avoid concrete totally, I would,' Lui responds. 'We're not saying this is the perfect way to do things, only that this is the optimum way of addressing all the various constraints we have: financial, public, functional and environmental.' And so the dialogue ends, DSD and Maunsell representatives promising to 'consider' his requests and Taylor convinced the river as he knew it has been lost. He says he appreciated the chance to express his views but doesn't presume they'll change anything. 'I'm not sure if there's anything else I can do,' he sighs. 'I think I've made my point but I'm only an individual. If nothing else, at least [the government] is aware members of the public do have concerns, and maybe they'll think twice before doing something like this again.' Christofis and Shaw think it will have to. Two factors - the rise of internet campaigning and of environmental consciousness among locals - have converged to test the government's consultation process, and promises of a more eco-friendly attitude, to their limits. 'Young Hongkongers are leaning more towards nature,' Christofis says. 'And it's actually very easy to be vocal now - we have all [the officials'] e-mail addresses.' 'I've come across a couple of situations where [the government] has not proceeded with a project at all ... because of public confrontation,' says Shaw. 'Since Sars, there's been a huge increase of usage of country park areas by local people and I believe this increase has become permanent.' Still, Shaw thinks it might be a stretch to say the official consultation system really works. He can't cite an example in which campaigners were able to significantly change the design of upgrades to rural trails or to persuade district officials that there were alternatives to cement and steel. 'For a project like [the Ho Chung drainage improvement work] I'm sure [the government] is making an effort, but the smaller projects can be just as damaging,' he says. 'Once you lay down concrete you're never going to dig it up. It's a permanent defacement.'