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Hong Kong environmental issues

Axe falls on decades-old banyan trees in Hong Kong after stand-off with conservationists ends

Removal of two banyans embedded in stone wall on Bonham Road was to begin at about 6am but small group was there to stop work

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 3:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 11:28pm

Officials on Sunday pressed on with the removal of two decades-old “stone wall trees” in Hong Kong’s Central and Western District after a stand-off with conservationists ended.

Lands Department officials said they “had no choice” but to remove the banyans or risk the safety of pedestrians.

Work to fell the two banyans embedded in a stone wall on Bonham Road was to start at about 6am, but more than a dozen conservationists were on site to stop their removal.

They hung a banner on one of the banyans that read: “Love for old trees.”

The department on Thursday submitted a report to Central and Western District Council suggesting the removal of the banyans because their poor health and structural condition indicated a high risk of collapse. The trees were estimated to be 70 to 80 years old.

According to the report, a registered arborist found a cavity in one of the trees and signs of decay.

The arborist also identified a cavity and signs of fungal infection in the other tree.

“As the two banyan trees are located on the narrow pavement on Bonham Road, and are close to residents and schools … [they] pose risks to public safety,” the department wrote, adding that removing them was the “most appropriate” option.

The move to axe the banyans came despite a motion urging the government to provide more resources to protect the trees being unanimously adopted at a district council meeting on the same day.

Is there a better way to manage Hong Kong’s iconic, centuries-old stone wall trees?

Department staff and conservationists arrived on the site at around the same time on Sunday, resulting in a stand-off that lasted until noon, when both parties agreed to resume negotiations after 1pm. In the afternoon the conservationists left the site after dozens of police officers arrived.

About 20 local residents also visited the site with District Officer Susanne Wong Ho Wing-sze to support the removal of the trees.

Conservationists were joined by lawmakers Tanya Chan, of the Civic Party, the Democratic Party’s Ted Hui Chi-fung and Au Nok-hin of Council Front. Hui and Au are also Central and Western district councillors.

Work to remove the trees began at about 3pm.

Hui accused the government of “shedding responsibility” on preserving the stone wall trees and urged the department to halt its plans and consider expert opinion.

Stone wall trees need better management

Chinese University of Hong Kong professor and tree expert Chiu Siu-wai also arrived on site to assess the banyans. Chiu questioned the government’s assessment that the trees were in immediate risk of collapsing.

As the trees were beside a road, that would rank higher in the government’s risk assessment by default, she explained.

The expert also said axing the trees was not the only option. “Could you not strengthen the wall?”

Tsuen Wan district councillor Roy Tam Hoi-pong, founder of conservation group Green Sense, said the government should have learned a lesson from an incident three years ago.

In 2015, the Highways Department hastily removed four century-old stone wall trees on Bonham Road, three weeks after two pedestrians were injured by a falling tree during a rainstorm.

The move caused a public outcry and raised awareness on the preservation of stone wall trees.

Tam said the conservationists had “tried their best” to safeguard the trees on Sunday.

He conceded that one of the banyans, which the Lands Department said was suffering from decay, would need more effort to preserve.

Removal of Bonham Road banyans justified, report finds

But he said that the health of the other tree would be easy to maintain.

Lands Department senior forestry officer Edmond Lam Yui-fong said they wished to remove the two trees before the summer typhoon season arrived.

The longer the delay the more risky it would be for pedestrians, he said.

The government looks after more than 300 stone wall trees, most of which are in Central and Western District.

Hui said he would follow up on the matter of preserving stone wall trees at future district council meetings. Apart from the two banyans axed on Sunday, he said the council had been debating whether some trees on Hospital Road and Pound Lane should be kept.