Rampant development threatens Hong Kong nature sites despite conservation moves
Retired civil servant Yeung Pak-lun has spent a lot of time in the rice fields of Long Valley over the past year. He's among 150 volunteers recruited by The Conservancy Association to tend the paddies it has revived in the area near Sheung Shui, and the backbreaking work has given him a greater appreciation for farmers and their produce.
"From planting seeds to harvesting, it takes about four months to produce a crop of rice. We have to squat down to cut each sheaf and push wheelbarrows filled with produce across the fields. It's exhausting," he says.
Their fields yield between 300kg and 400kg of brown and short-grain rice annually. But as much as The Conservancy Association values the grain, their primary aim is not food production, but to manage the land for nature conservation.
The paddies form part of 12 hectares of agricultural wetlands and fish ponds that the association rents from private owners in the valley and run in collaboration with the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.
The scheme began in 2005 when the two groups secured HK$20 million from the Environment and Conservation Fund to manage the area for nine years - recognition of the great variety of bird species that rely on the patchwork of wetlands.
These efforts are yielding results: species such as the crested bunting, which had largely vanished from Hong Kong during the past decade, are now frequently spotted in the paddies. Even the little rice bird - listed as a threatened species after being widely hunted for food in southern China - has returned in flocks.
It took a while before the paddy revival scheme took off, says Conservancy Association field officer Kan Wai-hong. Initially they planted mainly arrowroot, water chestnut and lotus to establish a habitat conducive to birds.
For the first two years, they devoted three plots to rice, but birds ate most of the grain. It was only in 2010, after they had extended the area under cultivation to 13 plots (four of which were set aside for the birds), that the group had its first rice harvest, Kan says.
The area falls within a nature park that the government hopes to create as part of its northeast New Territories development. Last year, officials announced they would spend HK$3.2 billion to buy 32 hectares of private farmland, and combine the area with five hectares of government land to form the park.
That should be good news to green groups, but The Conservancy Association worries that 13 other hectares of private farmland at the southern end of the valley will come under pressure for increased development.
"We have seen instances in which soil is trucked in to smother farmland near Long Valley so that village houses can be built," says its assistant conservation manager Kami Hui Shuk-kwan. "Landowners may apply to build village houses on agricultural land. There are wetlands in Kam Tin that are covered up for construction.
"Although Long Valley will be turned into an ecological park under the northeast New Territories development plan, the surrounding area is earmarked for building. The size of the buffer zone separating the park from commercial and residential developments has yet to be decided. Tall buildings of up to 40 storeys will put a severe strain on natural habitats in Long Valley, bringing noise and light pollution. Any developments should be low density."
As details for the ecological park have yet to be finalised, the association also worries that it will be turned into an attraction like the wetland park in Tin Sui Wai, where the number of visitors is not controlled.
"Long Valley, which contains fragile habitats for birds, simply cannot sustain a flood of visitors," Hui says.
The two groups are applying for further government funding to extend their paddy revival scheme as part of the future ecological park.
The valley first made headlines in 2000 because of a controversial proposal to build the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation's (now the MTR's) spur line to Lok Ma Chau across the wetlands. It was shelved in the face of fierce objections from conservation groups and that section railway line was eventually built underground.
Long Valley is one of 12 important nature sites listed for protection under a conservation policy announced in 2004. Other sites include Mai Po near Yuen Long, Fung Yuen and Sha Lo Tung in Tai Po district, Luk Keng in Sha Tau Kok and Tai Ho on Lantau Island.
The policy is aimed at conserving environmentally important sites under private ownership while respecting landowners' rights.
However, the model for the new nature park at Long Valley, where the government plans to use the Land Resumption Ordinance to buy back private land for conservation, is a first for Hong Kong. Land involved in the buy-back is in the hands of rural clans, individual investors and developers, including a subsidiary of property giant Cheung Kong.
In the past, the ordinance was used mainly to acquire land for building infrastructure such as roads and railways. The government has resisted taking private land for conservation because it may cost billions of dollars.
Two approaches have been adopted to promote conservation under the policy.
The first, adopted at four sites including Long Valley and Fung Yuen, involves a management agreement scheme under which NGOs will receive grants from the Environment and Conservation Fund to lease land from private owners and manage the sites to improve their ecological value.
The second is a public-private partnership model that aims to be self-financing by allowing developers to build on part of the site and having them pay to preserve the rest. However, none of the six applications under the partnership model - including a scheme to build a columbarium in Sha Lo Tung - have received the go-ahead, as all have been racked by controversy.
A spokeswoman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) says projects under the management scheme at Fung Yuen and Long Valley have produced heartening results.
"There has been an increase in the number and diversity of butterflies at Fung Yuen," she says."In view of the encouraging results … we will continue liaising with different NGOs and relevant communities, and encourage them to participate in conservation.
"Regular patrols are conducted at the 12 priority sites to monitor the conditions … and to detect irregularities. We will step up patrols at black spots to … discourage further impact on the environment."
The Conservancy Association campaign manager Peter Li Siu-man notes, however, that approval was given to conduct conservation at only four of the government's 12 priority ecological sites over the past decade.
"The delay [in conservation work] means some sites have been damaged over the past few years," he says.
He cites as an example the wetlands at the border enclave of Luk Keng in Sha Tau Kok, which are home to 58 species of dragonflies, more than half of all those found in Hong Kong.
Volunteers recently discovered damaging development at Kai Kuk Shue Ha village in Luk Keng, where a path next to an environmentally important stream was widened from one metre to more than three metres to allow dump trucks to pass.
"The extension of the path cuts into agricultural and government land," Li says. "We suspect there's illegal use of government land. The stream is home to the smallest species of dragonfly in the world - the scarlet dwarf - and the passing trucks will affect their habitat."
The AFCD spokeswoman concedes there may be some damage from illegal activities. Department staff reported landfilling and excavation activities at Kai Kuk Shue Ha and Luk Keng in October, mainly on the leased land. Although the stream has not been polluted, the cases were referred to the district land office and the Planning Department for investigation.
Li says Long Valley offers the best model for dealing with conservation on private land with fragmented ownership.
"Large-scale developments should not be built on ecologically sensitive sites," he says. "One of the plans under the public-private partnership is to build a spa resort in Shum Chung [in Sai Kung]. But it was also put on hold like the one at Sha Lo Tung.
"The government has been slow to protect ecologically sensitive areas. There have been calls to conserve Long Valley since the plan to build the Lok Ma Chau spur, but the government didn't take any action until they announced [in 2013] the buyout plan to create a nature park. If not for the northeast New Territories development, they wouldn't have agreed to the buyout.
"The government just wants to link conservation with development, just as it proposed the establishment of a [2,400 hectare] marine park to compensate for the reclamation work to build a third runway at the airport.
"Now they're conserving Long Valley to make up for the loss of 10 hectares of wetlands due to the northeast New Territories development. The government should take a more proactive approach."