Grassroots support for conservation in Hong Kong is building, and surely now ahead of the government, and especially developers who too often seem out of touch with our changing society
You may have seen news of the plastic pellets spill, which happened as six container loads of plastic pellets were tossed off a freighter during Typhoon Vicente on the night of 23 July 2012. Maybe you were among the thousands of people who took part in the many beach cleanups in response to the spill.
Though the pellet spill itself was not a disaster for Hong Kong’s marine environment – which already suffers greatly from chemical pollution, dredging, over-fishing, reclamation projects and an unrelenting onslaught by plastic debris – the response seems of huge significance. I’ve been astonished to see and read of so many people coming out to fill bags with pellets and other waste, as well as sift through sand to pick out pellets. This response is unprecedented, and [at the time I hoped] may prove a milestone in environmental protection in Hong Kong.
I’ve been in Hong Kong since 1987, and always been strongly interested and involved in local conservation. Over the years, I’ve witnessed environmental changes for the worse, especially at sea; but also noted a great change in people’s attitudes to our natural environment, and willingness to support conservation.
I remember that as I arrived in the late 1980s, there were commentaries indicating that many Hong Kong people were only recently coming to regard Hong Kong as their home – instead of a place they passed through on the way from mainland China to a life overseas. There was nature conservation, but it was mostly “high level”, such as initiated by the government, and WWF Hong Kong managing Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve, and with no great grassroots participation that I recall.
During the 1990s, there was news of potential development work that could threaten Ham Tin, at Tai Long Wan, Sai Kung. This prompted an initiative by Friends of the Earth, which prepared a statement with signatures from several green groups and concerned individuals – helping lead to the Town Planning Board establishing a Development Permission Area, effectively halting whatever the potential development may have been.
Also at the end of the 1990s and early last decade, the KCRC planned to build the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line across Long Valley, Hong Kong’s last and largest agricultural wetland. Yet Long Valley is excellent for birds, including species that are rare in Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society spearheaded a campaign to protect the site. This included courtroom “battles”, and attracted considerable media attention – leading to extensive public support for protecting Long Valley and its birdlife, even though most people had never been there. Eventually, the KCRC relented, and built a tunnel beneath Long Valley, which survives today, albeit its future is not secure.
Hong Kong people’s interest and participation in conservation has increased since the Long Valley case.
This column is arranged by the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Concern Group, a small but active group that has focused on threats to Victoria Peak and nearby, including Lung Fu Shan. Chairwoman Vivian Leung Tai Yuet-kam proudly tells of the group gaining widespread public support that has helped prevent hillside paths being despoiled by over 1000 metres of unnecessary railings.
Living on Cheung Chau, I have become heavily involved in opposing the government’s plans to build an artificial island with gigantic waste incinerator beside neighbouring Shek Kwu Chau. In this case, too, citizens’ action has been crucial in raising some public awareness of the issue, and in helping prompt the Legislative Council’s Panel on Environmental Affairs to vote against the project.
Yet this vote did not mean an end to the incinerator, just as protecting a site one day may not keep it safe for long. In summer 2010 came reports of a development project damaging Tai Long Wan, this time at Sai Wan, south of Ham Tin. A Facebook group on protecting Sai Wan was started, and within a week attracted over 65,000 members. This plus protest hikes generated media interest, and prompted the government to act in order to stop the development. “We helped wake up a giant,” said Wayne Yim, founder of the Facebook group. “The quiet majority of Hong Kong people have shown they will no longer stand by and let developers take away their core assets.”
Now, there are more Facebook groups and pages dedicated to helping protect sites ranging from Po Toi to Shalotung and Lantau Island. Members of a website, HKWildlife.Net [now more active on Facebook?], played an active role in trying to protect the shoreline at Lung Mei, near Tai Mei Tuk. They helped boost awareness and support for this site; even so, failed to save it from a fate as an artificial – with imported sand – bathing beach.
As grassroots support for conservation builds – and is surely now ahead of the government, and especially developers who too often seem out of touch with our changing society – the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Concern Group is itself changing, to become the Alliance for a Beautiful Hong Kong, and with greater opportunities for Hongkongers’ involvement.
Perhaps you will get involved in the new alliance; I hope so! But remember there are a myriad ways you can make a difference, from a simple Like for a Facebook page, to getting out to clean up coastal lap sap, join protests, help spread awareness – and show you care about Hong Kong, our home.
This is a slightly updated version of the original English draft of an opinion piece, which was published in Ming Pao Weekly on 8 September 2012.