It can take an unscrupulous operator just hours to totally trash a verdant rural area with illegally dumped construction waste. But it may take months or years before authorities act against perpetrators and restore land to its original state. Or it may never happen. Authorities must first be alerted to illegal dumping, which often occurs in remote areas. After that, complainants can easily be confused about which government department to call because at least six departments - the environment, lands, planning, buildings, hygiene and drainage bureaus - have roles to play. Land-filling or waste dumping on government land is prohibited. But not all such activities on private sites are illegal, as long as they are compatible with the site's zoning under the Town Planning Ordinance. For instance, rural sites zoned as open storage do not require prior approval for land-filling, but for agricultural zones, advance permission is needed from the Planning Department, which regulates unauthorised development. The law came into effect after 2005 when a pile of construction waste three storeys high was dumped on a large piece of farmland in She Shan village, Lam Tsuen. However, if material is dumped on farmland and reaches no higher than 1.2 metres, a landowner is not required to seek prior permission. So even after a site is deliberately trashed with waste, no further action can be taken and the filled site can legally remain as it is for years. The fragmented nature of rural land ownership has proved another big obstacle to enforcing planning rules, which mainly hold registered land owners responsible. Sometimes, as in a case at Ho Sheung Heung, Sheung Shui, innocent part-owners of the land who have never given consent for their site to be filled might be held liable for activities they are not responsible for. Another law officials can invoke against illegal dumping is the Waste Disposal Ordinance, which requires that waste be properly disposed of at designated facilities. The Environmental Protection Department can also hold waste producers and transport operators accountable for illegal dumping. But tracking the origins of waste, and therefore those responsible, has proved to be extremely difficult. In the Ho Sheung Heung case, while some of the waste was confirmed as originating from a government work site thanks to an investigation by green activists, the provenance of the rest remains a mystery. Illegally dumped waste can also come from private work sites which are not subject to the trip-ticket system designed to monitor waste flow from government worksites. What further complicates enforcement is that dumping on private land is allowed when landowners consent. But no matter how stringent or lax the laws are, they cannot resolve the core problem - perceptions of development rights by private landowners and developers in the New Territories. Across the countryside illegal dumping, tree felling, illegal road-building on private sites zoned as agricultural or as conservation green belt has undoubtedly occurred. Addressing that might not require just tighter rules or stiffer penalties, but also a clearer policy direction.