One of the first facts that newcomers to Hong Kong often learn is, despite being better known as a skyscraper-laden concrete jungle, Hong Kong is mostly green, with almost 70 percent of our total area made up of countryside. To protect the rural areas from being consumed by rapid development, strict legislation and laws have been imposed so that 40 percent of our land, at 400 square kilometers, is classified as “protected areas.” They include country parks, special sites and conservation areas. For a very long time we have been proud of the fact that, even though most of us live in a claustrophobic environment day-in, day-out, we can always escape into the unspoiled, protected countryside for a breath of fresh air. But the recent case of destruction at Tai Long Sai Wan in Sai Kung has proven otherwise. Originally a scenic beach with a small village neighboring Sai Kung East Country Park, the farmlands at Sai Wan have recently been bought out by businessman Simon Lo Lin-shing. Costing Lo $16 million to acquire, the plot was to be turned into his extravagant private retreat, which would have included a private lodge, swimming pools, artificial ponds, an organic garden and a tennis court. Lo’s workers have flattened the farmlands, and had started digging for construction. It didn’t take long for the press to find out that the countryside Lo was building on was in fact a government archeological site. Environmentalists also suspected that part of Lo’s site belonged to the Sai Kung East Country Park and that workers had been driving heavy-duty trucks into the country park illegally. The construction was halted, and last week the government quickly rezoned the area to stop any further development from taking place for at least three years. But the damage has been done. Sadly, this is not the only case. The World Wildlife Fund recently found that at least 43 other sites throughout the Hong Kong countryside have been exploited and destroyed; some illegally so. Trees have been felled, construction waste dumped, land excavated, ponds filled, and illegal roads built—in short, some beautiful areas of our countryside have been quietly ruined. Read on as we present all the at-risk sites. It makes for some pretty disturbing reading. If you feel like fighting back, click here to find out how. Mui Tsz Lam | Nan Sang Wai,Yuen Long | Lau Fau Shan, Yuen Long | Nam A, Sai Kung | Tung Tsz, Tai Po | Lung Ku Tan, Tuen Mun | Tin Fu Tsai | Long Keng, Sai Kung | Tai Long Sai Wan | Pak Shui Wun, Sai Kung | Shan Liu, Tai Po | Chuk Kok, Sai Kung | Fung Yuen, Tai Po | Luk Keng | Ma Shi Chau, Tai Po | To Kwa Peng, Sai Kung | Lung Mei, Tai Po | Ha Tei Ha, Tai Po | Pak Lap, Sai Kung | Lo Lau Uk, Tai Po | San Tin, Yuen Long | Mong Tung Wan, Lantau Island | Ngam Tau Sha, Clearwater Bay, Sai Kung | Pak Ngau Shek, Tai Po | So Lo Pun Mui Tsz Lam Where is it? Mui Tsz Lam is a village area located at Ma On Shan Peak, 130m above sea level. It is surrounded by the Ma On Shan Country Park. What was it? Villages alongside two hectares of feng shui woodland which had 160 species of trees. It was the largest in the city and had the most species. What’s happening now? A major part of Mui Tsz Lam was owned by the government, and it is zoned as a green belt area. However, most of the government land was sold to private developers in the 1990s, but no development has started due to the green belt restrictions. However, it has been found that some land in Mui Tsz Lam has been excavated and filled recently and the two sides of a natural stream have been paved with concrete. Top Nan Sang Wai,Yuen Long Considered by many as back garden of Hong Kong, Nan Sang Wai is suffering from illegal dumping, with ponds and land being filled up for development and road building. Top Lau Fau Shan, Yuen Long Landowners can’t wait to develop this fishing village which already suffers from landfilling. Top Nam A, Sai Kung About 150 trees, all located inside the green belt, have been felled in this village. Top Tung Tsz, Tai Po Despite being a hiking hotspot, you can see evidence of land excavation. Top Lung Ku Tan, Tuen Mun This hilltop has been excavated into a columbarium that is built like a cemetery. Top Tin Fu Tsai Where is it? Tin Fu Tsai is private land located inside the Tai Lam Country Park, which is north of Sham Tseng. What was it? Tin Fu Tsai was a 300-year-old village for the Choi clan. It was once an important village in Pat Heung. What’s happening now? Despite being in the country park, the private land of Tin Fu Tsai is not protected. Last year, it was found that trees in the area have been felled, land excavated and illegal roads built. The practice has disturbed the habitat of the country park, and has polluted the natural stream there. Top Long Keng, Sai Kung Trees have been felled and construction waste has been illegally dumped. Top Tai Long Sai Wan Where is it? Tai Long Sai Wan is a beach located in Sai Kung. It is one of the four beaches of Tai Long Wan and is adjacent to the Sai Kung East Country Park. It is also located at Stage 2 of the MacLehose Trail. What was it? Tai Long Sai Wan was once used as a typhoon shelter for fishing boats. It is hard to get to on foot so the beach has been unpolluted for decades and is famous for its white sand and clear water. It was even named number one of the government’s “Hong Kong Best 10 Scenic Sites Election” in 2006. The site is also an archeological site for the Antiquities and Monuments Office. What’s happening now? It was discovered in July that businessman Simon Lo Lin-shing paid $16 million for 10,000 square meters of land. The land falls just outside of the country park area and is not covered by any zoning plans. Lo planned to built a private retreat there, which would have included a private lodge, garden, tennis court and swimming pools. Vegetation had been cleared and land excavated. Green groups voiced their opposition towards the construction, which resulted in Lo stopping the construction. The government finally zoned the area last week, and all development will be banned for the next three years. Top Pak Shui Wun, Sai Kung The harbor close to the University of Science and Technology features a 40-meter waterfall. However, land excavation has altered the natural environment. Top Shan Liu, Tai Po Large-scale illegal construction has taken place in this abandoned village, including a bridge. Many trees have also been chopped down. Top Chuk Kok, Sai Kung This road is believed to have been built illegally. Top Fung Yuen, Tai Po The butterfly reserve is threatened by land excavation all around and as close as 50 meters away (seen in this picture). Top Luk Keng Where is it? Luk Keng is located near Sha Tau Kok and is a hiking hotspot with a shoal facing mainland China. What was it? Partly surrounded by woods, Luk Keng was well known for its natural beauty and uninhabited environment. Rare birds such as black-faced spoonbills can be seen here. You can also find wetlands and waterfalls. What’s happening now? In 2009, the WWF discovered illegal land and pond filling. The filled land was subsequently used as an illegal dumping site for construction waste which resulted in the loss of freshwater wetland habitat. Top Ma Shi Chau, Tai Po This protected “special area” has suffered from tree felling and land excavation. Top To Kwa Peng, Sai Kung Trees were felled to build village houses and workers illegally built roads on government land. Top Lung Mei, Tai Po This mudflat, despite having high conservation value, will be turned into an artificial beach by the government. Top Ha Tei Ha, Tai Po An illegal road was built through this tiny, little-known village. Top Pak Lap, Sai Kung Trees were chopped down in this 300-year-old Hakka village. Top Lo Lau Uk, Tai Po An illegal road was built near a natural stream with high conservation value. Trees were also felled and land excavated. Top San Tin, Yuen Long San Tin is an area largely comprising villages. The Ramsar Convention declared local fish ponds as “wetland with international importance.” However, some of the farmland was filled to become container storage vareas resulting in pollution. Top Mong Tung Wan, Lantau Island This almost untouched part of Lantau is now being considered as the site of a new columbarium. Top Ngam Tau Sha, Clearwater Bay, Sai Kung Trees were felled; land was excavated and filled, then concrete paths were illegally built across the country park area. Top Pak Ngau Shek, Tai Po Part of a vegetated hillside has been excavated and trees felled for construction. Top So Lo Pun Where is it? Located in Sha Tau Kok, the Northeastern-most corner of Hong Kong, So Lo Pun is an uninhabited village that can only be accessed on foot. It is also located next to the Plover Cove Country Park. What was it? So Lo Pun is a village that was first inhabited as early as 1,100 years ago. A lot of the people living there were Hakka and belonged to the Wong clan. It was built in a traditional village setting, with feng shui trees planted for the benefit of the villagers. But around 30 years ago the village became deserted. Some say people moved away or emigrated while local ghost stories claim the entire village died on the same day, after a boating accident. What’s happening now? Former villagers (well, we guess not everyone died according to that urban legend) cut down over 400 feng shui trees to build a “tourist attraction” in 2008. The WWF also found land excavation and destruction of mangroves and seagrass beds in the area. Its proximity to the country park (which is protected) means that any disturbance of the vegetation there would affect the high ecological value of the park. Top What Went Wrong The obvious question is, how did we let it slip, and for so long? Here’s the truth: our countryside is not protected at all, and massive amounts of irreversible damage has been done. So what went wrong? Paul Zimmerman, the convener of Designing Hong Kong, says the major problem is how most village areas in the New Territories have not been zoned properly—as one can see in Tai Long Sai Wan’s case. In the past, when country parks were originally zoned, many of the farmlands within the country park areas were left private because they were still being farmed. Hence no zoning was carried out on those lands. But in the past two decades, farmers have stopped farming and a lot of these lands were left abandoned. Landowners then started construction projects in those area because technically they were allowed to. “In the mid-1990s, the government could easily have incorporated these abandoned sites into the country parks with very few objections because they were empty and they would only have needed to give compensation to the land owners,” says Zimmerman. “Instead they never did any work to change the planning controls over these lands.” According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), there are 53 areas adjacent or inside the country parks in Hong Kong that have yet to be zoned, which leads to problems like Tai Long Sai Wan. The site was swiftly zoned by the government last week, halting all development for at least the next three years. Because many of these areas of private land are located in, or adjacent to, country parks, some developers have actually been destroying the country parks themelves with their sprawling construction projects. Many of them have driven heavy-duty trucks illegally through the parks; some even felled trees and excavated land that belonged to the country parks. Currently the AFCD is in charge of managing all country parks but there is little they can do. “The AFCD has very little power to enforce laws within the country parks,” says Zimmerman. “They have limited abilities to investigate illegal acts, and the penalties are too low to stop the developers.” Even if the developers are not touching the actual country park areas, when they carry out work adjacent to a country park, they are already affecting the habitat, which in turn affects the country park’s ecological value. After all, their plot of land shares the same water, same vegetation, and is likely to have the same flora and fauna. One disturbance in the ecological system can shift everything. However, currently no one is required to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA), even if they are carrying out work which is very close to a country park. But if the government forces landowners to conduct EIAs for work done adjacent to country parks, then both the public and experts can better assess the potential harm which could be caused—after all, a public consultation is part of the EIA. Some believe the government should buy all land around the perimeter and adjacent to our country parks in order to maintain the integrity of the local habitat. Zimmerman says this is workable as the country parks were public assets to start with. “By the luck of history, we have these assets and now of course people love them,” he says. “I think the government has not recognized sufficiently the change of attitude and the aspirations of the public, that they consider these as their assets and not for somebody to take away.” Additional reporting by Grace Tsoi. Also see: Our Countryside, or One Big Garbage Dump?