Is the government committed to safeguarding our country parks?

Country parks authority must do its duty to block destructive development

Paul Zimmerman calls on the country parks authority to live up to its statutory duty of protecting Hong Kong's green treasure from chaotic village house development

Hong Kong's country parks are among our greatest treasures. Yet they are under development threat. And the "landlord", the Country and Marine Parks Authority, stands by silently. When country parks were established in the 1970s, some 500 hectares of abandoned private land was immediately incorporated into the parks. Another 2,000 hectares of private cultivated land and "small nucleated villages mostly of traditional character" were excluded as "enclaves" from the Country Parks Ordinance. Soon after, most of these villages and farm land were abandoned, too.

Since 1991, the government has acknowledged the need to protect these country park enclaves against incompatible uses which may adversely affect the overall beauty and integrity of our country parks and special areas.

Following the public outcry over illegal development at an area in Tai Long Sai Wan that is surrounded by a country park, the government agreed that the need to enhance protection of country park enclaves was urgent. A survey revealed 54 enclaves located deep inside country parks that were not protected by the country park or town planning ordinances.

In 2011, the authority - the director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department - acknowledged that development in enclaves could degrade the country parks. He also explained that conservation objectives cannot be fully achieved under the Town Planning Ordinance because of the lack of powers to curb eco-vandalism, the absence of resources to improve the habitat and amenities and because the enclaves would not benefit from AFCD patrols and law enforcement, refuse collection and vegetation management.

The authority spent two years on changing its long-standing principles, specifically that the mere existence of private land would no longer automatically be taken as a determining factor for exclusion of land from the boundary of a country park. It took responsibility for handling possible land management problems, objections by land owners and compensation demands.

Under these new guidelines, it decided to include Tai Long Sai Wan and five small enclaves in country parks. The green groups were jubilant, and the Heung Yee Kuk cried foul and blocked footpaths. Villagers challenged the decision in court but the judge ruled that the decision to incorporate Tai Long Sai Wan was justifiable.

But, in a complete turnaround, the authority is refusing to control and manage all other enclaves with private land, claiming "it is too difficult". This has forced the Town Planning Board to prepare outline zoning plans for Hoi Ha, Pak Tam Au, So Lo Pun and all other large enclaves facing development pressure. These plans include zones for village expansion where development control is further relinquished to the Lands Department under the small house policy.

To comprehend the chaos, destruction and pollution the Lands Department will allow in the country and marine parks, one only has to tour a few villages around Tai Po, Yuen Long or Sai Kung. The lack of planning, enforcement and management under the small house policy, and the failures to protect vernacular architecture, are visible throughout the New Territories.

In Town Planning Board papers, the AFCD remains silent on these risks. When asked, it does not consider itself responsible for assessing the overall impact of development in enclaves on the surrounding country and marine parks.

This contradicts the Country Parks Ordinance, under which it is the authority's duty to protect the vegetation and wildlife inside country parks, marine parks and special areas; to preserve buildings and sites of cultural significance; and to manage the country parks for their recreational use.

It also breaches the Convention on Biological Diversity, under which Hong Kong as a signatory has committed to "promote environmentally sound and sustainable development in areas adjacent to protected areas with a view to furthering protection of these areas".

The board which oversees and advises the authority on its policies and programmes surely has many questions to answer regarding the unprotected country park enclaves. They cannot allow the authority to abrogate its responsibility because of potential management difficulties of private land. After all, these enclaves cannot be moved out of the country parks.

It certainly cannot allow the authority to stand by silently when the decisions are made to allow the development of thousands of small houses deep inside the country parks.

For instance, will it assess the zoning plans for country park enclaves and the impact of proposals for the population in the Plover Cove Country Park to surge from 350 to 13,000 residents, or the certain death of the Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park by construction sediment and foul waters from private sewage systems and drains?

Save Our Country Parks is an alliance of green groups and other organisations that fully support protection of our country parks from incompatible development in enclaves. These concerns are widely shared by Hongkongers. We ask: is the government truly committed to ensuring the country parks remain among our greatest assets, for generations to come?

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Stop the rot