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Hong Kong environmental issues

Axed Bonham Road banyan trees: government watchdog to investigate three public departments in Hong Kong over possible maladministration

Ombudsman Connie Lau says Lands Department, Home Affairs Department and Tree Management Office of Development Bureau to be investigated

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 3:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 8:49pm

The decision to axe two banyan trees, thought to be more than 70 years old, in Hong Kong has triggered an investigation into three public departments, the government watchdog said on Monday.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said the Lands Department, Home Affairs Department and the Development Bureau’s Tree Management Office would be investigated.

“The felling of the trees by the Lands Department has attracted wide media coverage and public debate,” an Ombudsman statement read.

Some accused the officials of not taking “due care of the health conditions of the trees” nor adequately consulting relevant experts and the local community, it added.

On May 20, the Lands Department removed two banyan trees embedded in a stone wall on Bonham Road in Central and Western district. They were estimated to be between 70 and 80 years old.

Could Hong Kong’s 80-year-old banyan trees have been saved?

The department submitted a report to Central and Western District Council on May 17, suggesting the trees be felled, citing poor health and structural conditions as well as a high risk of collapse.

A group of conservationists tried to stop the axing, but were driven away by authorities.

The watchdog will look into whether the department had sufficient grounds to fell the trees, as well as how it typically maintains them.

Lau will further examine the Tree Management Office’s involvement, and the Home Affairs Department’s work in conducting local consultation.

Following the investigation, the Ombudsman will release a report expected to suggest areas for improvement.

In September 2015, the watchdog launched a similar investigation into three government bodies over the removal of four stone wall trees, also on Bonham Road.

Gallery: Weaving through Hong Kong’s banyan trees

That felling was triggered by two pedestrians being injured by a tree that toppled during a rainstorm.

What’s behind the outcry in Hong Kong over the removal of two old banyan trees?

A report released in June 2016 concluded there was no “substantive evidence” to show the removal of those trees was unreasonable.

University of Hong Kong geography professor Jim Chi-yung believed the Ombudsman’s investigation of the latest case could offer an “objective” view of the incident.

There are doubts over the Lands Department’s report [and] whether there was adequate scientific evidence
Jim Chi-yung, HKU

“There are doubts about the [Lands Department’s] report [and] whether there was adequate scientific evidence,” Jim said.

However, the professor noted the 2016 report also outlined suggestions officials might not have followed.

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Government departments should have communicated with the local community earlier and more frequently before felling the trees, Jim added.

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung, who is also a Central and Western district councillor, had opposed removing the two banyan trees and welcomed the investigation.

Hui said an investigation would be “reasonable”, claiming officials did not try their best to save the trees and that consultation had been lacking at the community level.