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Hong Kong environmental issues

Choosing between people and Hong Kong’s banyan trees is like deciding whether to save ‘mother or girlfriend first’, says Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan

Comments come after Chief Executive Carrie Lam says public safety will always come first as row over decision to cut down two 80-year-old trees rumbles on

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 3:35pm

Public safety will always take precedence over that of Hong Kong’s banyan trees, the city’s leader said on Wednesday as the outcry over the felling of two 80-year-old specimens showed little sign of slowing down.

However, after a tense exchange with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor at a Legislative Council meeting, Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan said the choice was more like deciding whether to save “your mother or your girlfriend”.

Chan urged Lam to consider a tree management law, while the chief executive pointed to London, New York and Melbourne as examples of cities which manage trees properly without the need for legislation.

The two trees, which the Lands Department had deemed unsafe, were removed in a 12-hour operation on Sunday in the Central and Western District that pitted arborists and conservationists against the government.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Lam said that while harmony between nature and people was preferable, people’s safety was paramount.

“We want harmony between people and trees,” she said. “But, when it is not possible, I’m sorry, people’s safety and lives must come first.”

Government officials cut down the two banyan trees on Bonham Road, in Pok Fu Lam, in an operation that began on Sunday and ended at about 4am on Monday. Only the buttress roots, covered with black plastic bags, remained of the two large “stone wall trees”. 

Could Hong Kong’s 80-year-old banyan trees on Bonham Road have been spared the axe?

A Lands Department report said the trees had been found to have cavities, with one showing signs of decay, and the second exhibiting a fungal infection, causing a safety hazard.

Some experts disagreed, and said at least one tree could have been saved if the government had wanted to do so. 

Chan, who took Lam to task over the episode, said after the meeting that the chief executive was pitting people’s safety against the well-being of trees. 

“It’s like asking whom you will save first between your mother and your girlfriend,” Chan said. “We need to first find out whether the trees were really unsafe to people.”

Chan said she did not believe the government had carefully looked into the issue from the prospective of preserving the trees.

“Even as a layman, I can also see the government’s assessment was very problematic,” she said.

At the Legco meeting, Chan asked Lam why the government had not improved Hong Kong’s tree management through legislation to better protect trees.

Lam said she had “promised to actively consider legislation” on tree management when she was the secretary for development from 2007 to 2012.

“I know that the Development Bureau had followed up on this issue, and it still keeps a cautiously open attitude on the proposal,” she said.

Hong Kong architect and hobby potter’s teaware inspired by banyan trees

Lam said the bureau had studied the management of trees in six cities on the mainland, and overseas, and found that New York, London and Melbourne had managed trees “properly” without any tree management law in place. There are also places with such laws, such as Guangzhou, Singapore and Canada, she added.

Chan said after the meeting that Lam needed to further elaborate on what she meant by holding an “open attitude”, when what the government appeared to be doing was not what was best for the trees.

“Does holding an open attitude mean we will have to wait for another seven years for the legislation to come?” Chan said.

She said if the government really made people’s safety a priority, it should speed up the process of establishing a tree management law.