Root of the problem

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


The giant camphor tree in She Shan Tsuen, Tai Po, is heavy with age. Steel beams support its branches, some of which are 25 metres above the ground. The tree is several centuries old and a two-metre cavity at its base is a testament to its many years.

Brian French, an American arborist and tree climber, dangles from one of the climbing ropes that festoon the canopy as he prunes dead branches and inspects the tree for disease. French and his assistant, Kelvin Chan Kwok-hin, work quietly, accompanied by the occasional rasp of a saw. Below the canopy the forest floor is damp and gloomy with shade. At one point the silence is shattered by the roar of a chainsaw as they trim a large branch.

'Don't cut it too close to the live part,' French calls through the canopy to Chan, who is wielding the chainsaw. If French had his way he would not be pruning any of the dead wood.

'It's important to leave dead wood in older big trees,' French says, explaining that it can be difficult for older trees to heal from pruning and that bad pruning can lead to disease and rot.

'There's some plants growing on this one,' French says, as he pokes at the aged wood. 'And there are bugs and birds that live on the branch. Taking away the dead branch is taking way the habitat of these plants.'

But dead branches pose a danger to the public and French's preventative work is being repeated across Hong Kong in a burst of arboreal activity that began in March last year, when the Development Bureau established a greening, landscape and tree management section. The Tree Management Office (TMO) is one half of that section, which was created to push a new policy on making Hong Kong greener. The entire section has an annual budget of HK$40 million and 30 staff.

The TMO came about in part because of alarm over casualties caused by falling trees. The collapse of a 23-metre coral tree in Stanley Market in 2008, which killed student Kitty Chong Chung-yin, 19, was a powerful catalyst, sparking a task force investigation led by then chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen. But the fact that French is clambering up some of the more than a million trees scattered across Hong Kong's urban public places is a symbol both of the efforts the city is making to deal with any problems they may pose and the difficulties it has in finding skilled arborists locally to deal with those problems.

Lawrence Chau Kam-chiu, head of the TMO, says: 'Public safety is of paramount concern.'

A botanist, Chau is a botanist who led the plant conservation department at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden for 15 years before taking on the challenge of looking after Hong Kong's trees. Now he sits in a government office in Admiralty.

The TMO provides guidance to the 10 government departments that have responsibility for Hong Kong's trees. Most urban trees fall under the jurisdiction of the departments of leisure and cultural services; agriculture, fisheries and conservation; highways; and housing.

The TMO's task is huge, but a year and a half after being formed, the office is being criticised for having achieved little, for having little control over what has become a burgeoning arboriculture industry and of being misguided by public sentiment over the perceived dangers posed by Hong Kong's trees.

To the TMO's advantage has been the creation of the 1823 hotline, on which citizens can report trees they think look dangerous.

'The hurdle has been the scale and depth of this issue and public expectation is very high. It takes time to build up capacity for the industry, and it takes time for the general public to have more understanding of tree issues,' Chau says.

A spate of incidents forced tree safety into the public's consciousness. In addition to the tragedy in Stanley, last year cyclist Choi Kit-keung was killed in a tree collapse in Sha Tin and there was an incident involving a Wishing Tree in Lam Tsuen; a falling branch left a man injured during Lunar New Year 2005.

The TMO says there are 1.5 million trees in the public, urban and rural areas of Hong Kong that see significant traffic.

'This position is not only about trees, but how trees and people interact,' Chau says of his job.

One of the TMO's first steps was to ask all government departments to carry out surveys of their trees. They began by assessing entire areas and groups of trees and identifying those that needed attention. Old and valuable trees, wall trees or trees in public areas - numbering about 500,000 - receive special, ongoing attention.

Much of the work was signed over to contractors, but there was more work than people to do it, triggering an overnight rush for arborist certification and tree inspection contracts.

Ken So Kwok-yin, formerly an employee of Chau's at Kadoorie Farm and now chief executive of the Conservancy Association, a local champion of sustainable development, says: 'This exercise pumped up the whole industry very quickly. We see many new tree management companies [launching], which, in turn, are recruiting many new arborists.'

So's office is in Jordan, next to a sauna. It is cluttered and decorated with public information posters and lumps of tree fungus. Like most in the tree business, So, says he is deeply passionate about the future of Hong Kong's trees.

The most popular certification is granted by the United States-based International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). Hong Kong has held ISA exams with up to 200 people sitting them, the largest such gatherings in the world.

Jim Skiera, executive director of the ISA, was in Hong Kong recently to assess the industry and the city's need for an official ISA chapter.

'In the US, the industry is 100 years old and here it's about five years old,' Skiera says. 'But Hong Kong is catching up, and I've never seen an industry grow this fast.'

There are about 500 certified arborists in Hong Kong, although it is difficult to be exact because they are certified outside the city and the number is growing rapidly - up from 30 in 2005. About 180 of the registered arborists are employed directly by the government.

Hong Kong has 20 to 30 registered contractors who do tree work for government departments, plus myriad freelancers who work for the contractors. The TMO has no database of these freelancers.

Freelance tree workers say it is not hard to earn HK$30,000 a month doing tree inspections and pruning, and as much as HK$50,000 once they are established. A basic tree inspection can cost from HK$3,000 to HK$10,000, with higher-priced surveys including written reports and hi-tech assessment.

However, Sammy Au Wing-sum, manager of the local ISA China station (a station is an affiliated, but not official, ISA group, while a chapter is an official ISA office), says the relatively high pay and easy entry into the industry have undermined the quality of the work being done.

Au is a well-known and outspoken member of Hong Kong's growing arboriculture community, and his picturesque property in Kam Tsin Village, near Sheung Shui, has become a de facto headquarters for tree climbers and arborists.

The ISA Certified Arborist certificate, the most popular such qualification in Hong Kong, is intended for workers with at least three years of field experience. However, many of those taking the exam in Hong Kong come from the construction industry or have worked in administration and have little hands-on experience.

Au says that if candidates come to him with letters from their employers saying they have two years of experience there is little he can do to identify unscrupulous applicants if they pass the multiple-choice exam.

'Hong Kong people are very good at passing written exams,' Au says. 'We have a certificate for tree workers where you have to climb trees to pass - and in that one, people perform miserably.'

Some contractors allow uncertified workers to conduct tree examinations as long as a certified arborist signs off on the report. The signing assessor can be held liable if the tree should collapse because of problems that were missed in the examination.

'It's not proper,' Au says. 'The guy signing should be the one on site looking at the tree.'

Chau concedes his staff don't monitor who conducts the surveys, and while they prefer that a certified arborist does the work, they do not require it.

'There are so many trees that need to be inspected,' he says. 'In our guidelines, we say 'preferably' [to be carried out by a certified arborist].'

Before government workers can do a tree risk assessment they must attend a one-and-a-half-day workshop and have several years of working with vegetation, such as being employed as a gardener. About 2,000 workers have taken this workshop, qualifying them to do the most basic of tree inspections. Further certification is needed to do inspections of trees that have been identified as at risk or needing special attention.

The TMO acknowledges that arboriculture is a new endeavour in Hong Kong and there is a need for more expertise and training. Experienced arborists such as French, who has moved to Hong Kong for one year, are hard to find. But, while bringing in foreign experts may help bolster the industry, foreigners usually lack knowledge of local species and diseases and find it difficult to communicate with the largely Cantonese-speaking frontline tree workers.

The TMO is reviewing its management of contractors and the certifications it recognises, and Chau says the government may introduce its own, more hands-on certification criteria, aside from those of the ISA.

Chau says that as the arboriculture business develops in Hong Kong the TMO hopes to raise the bar, but until the industry matures it cannot require higher qualifications than those that are available locally. Chinese University offers a professional diploma in arboriculture while other universities offer botany degrees that include some arboriculture, but there are no degrees in arboriculture offered in Hong Kong.

'We hope in time we can develop a more structured, formalised requirement and build up a whole range of practitioners in this industry,' Chau says.

The TMO has spoken to organisations in several countries in an attempt to develop a suitable local certification system.

So, meanwhile, accuses contractors, as well as private landowners, of being overly aggressive in their pruning practices, leaving wounds that are larger than they need to be and indulging in excessive topping. He can rattle off a litany of offences, from last year's unnecessary fell- ing of a 20-metre Norfolk Island Pine at Maryknoll Convent School, Kowloon Tong, to the topping of trees in Tuen Mun's Leung King Estate, and says such failures will be repeated if inexperienced workers continue to make the same mistakes.

'The reason for tree failures is poor pruning practices,' So says. 'For example, if a tree looks too big - prune it. If it looks unbalanced or is leaning - prune it. If we continue bad pruning practices, even if we have the TMO for 10 or 20 years, we'll still have problematic trees.'

Pruning can change the way a tree copes with wind and insects, factors that are rarely considered in Hong Kong. Topping, where the top several metres of a tree are cut off with the intent of making it safer, is fairly common in Hong Kong but it is banned in many other cities. So says topping weakens a tree, making it more dangerous in the long term.

Au says that the lack of expertise is evident. 'You get big trees planted in small holes or on rooftops, and trees densely packed together for instant effect. You are creating hazardous trees in this manner,' Au says.

Conservationists are pushing the government for a comprehensive tree ordinance, as the TMO's responsibility does not extend to trees on private land, such as those on church, school or residential properties.

Private land leases were changed in the 1970s and 80s to include a tree preservation clause, but trees on properties under older leases have no legal protection. There are no statistics available on how many old leases predate the clause, but arborists say the number of unprotected trees is significant.

'From the administrative side, the most important thing is the tree ordinance,' So says. 'That wouldn't necessarily put everything in good order, but if there's a law, then everything that is done must work within that law.'

'I'm not ruling out the possibility of enacting a tree ordinance but there are so many things that we need to work on at present with the new office that our focus has been on these practices, guidelines and administrative arrangements,' Chau says.

So's other criticisms of the TMO include the lack of a comprehensive database on tree failures and studies on problems affecting local trees and contributing to failures, targets the TMO set for itself when it was formed.

The TMO has begun compiling a tree failure database, although this has been slow to develop. The database is intended to identify the species, locations and status of trees that fail most regularly, so arborists can take preventative action early. The TMO says a federal tree management information system will be available for departments to input information into the first quarter of next year.

The TMO has put a study of tree fungus and decay out to tender, but it is struggling to find suitable institutions to conduct the research because of the cross-disciplinary nature of the study. The office is now looking overseas for candidates to carry out the work, as well as another study on the wood strength of Hong Kong's most common tree species.

'If you look at local institutions or universities, there is no faculty or department in forestry, no department in horticulture or even agriculture,' Chau says. The nearest equivalent disciplines at degree level, with research capabilities, is landscape architecture and botany, he says.

Although there has been plenty of sniping at the TMO in its first year and a half, there has also been praise. Au, one of the most outspoken critics of the TMO administration, concedes its work is solidly based on the latest technology and research.

However, he adds: 'I think we are about 10 years behind Singapore in terms of tree management. And we should be about 50 years ahead of Macau, Taiwan and China.'

It may be that public opinion, not science or pruning technique, decides whether the TMO is successful. In Hong Kong, millions of people interact with trees every day, often without realising.

'Often when people pay attention to trees it's when they say, 'It nearly hit me and killed me.' More often than not, trees have been giving more benefit and good. I hope we can build up this perspective,' Chau says.

THE TIME HAS COME for my own interaction with a tree. Climbing trees in a Hong Kong park is technically illegal, so when French and Chan invite me to join them in the canopy of the giant camphor tree in She Shan Tsuen, I jump at the chance.

I put on a climbing harness and a pantin, a device strapped to the boot that clamps the rope as I ascend. Climbing a rope instead of scrambling up the trunk protects the bark and branches.

'March up the rope,' Chan instructs. 'Your arms and legs move like you're marching.'

I slam into the trunk with a dull thud and then stop, just high enough to be swinging freely but still far from where French rests in the canopy, waiting for me. Sweat is running into my eyes.

'Grunting and panting helps,' French reassures me from above.

Slowly the movements fall into a rhythm, and I begin marching up the rope.

Soon I am in the canopy, where I clamber onto a branch, remaining clipped to the rope for safety. A black and white butterfly flutters past, weaving between the branches of the tree. The ground is less than 10 metres down, but it feels a world away.

The smell of the tree is a powerful mix of camphor and the rich loamy scent of the forest. The tree is still but it feels vividly alive underneath me. A soft green light filters through the leaves. I have unconsciously lowered my voice and I step gingerly, not just because my knees are quivering from the height, but because I am standing on a living thing.

We abseil down, landing on the ground covered in insects and bits of bark from the tree. Soon the ropes are coiled and we turn to hike out of the forest, leaving the giant camphor tree to its silent solitude.