Old villages in Hong Kong are associated with long history and deep cultural roots, and are a graceful combination of traditional architecture and rural environment. Unfortunately, in the last 30 to 40 years the rural areas in the New Territories have been gradually turning from nature to brownfield sites such as open storage, recycling sites and car scrapyards. The profits made in and problems caused by these changes are complex and intricate.
The rural lands on Lantau - the largest Island of Hong Kong - are suffering similarly and the damage is worsening by the day. In future, there will be many more proposals for large developments on Lantau. The government has suggested the policy of “Development in the North, Conservation for the South” to focus conservation efforts in the south of the Island. At the same time, the government is setting up the Countryside Conservation Office, with a provisional funding of HK$100 million. Does this guarantee bright prospects for the conservation of rural South Lantau?
Lantau is in southwest Hong Kong and is the largest Island here. Seventy percent of the land has retained a relatively lush natural environment, especially on South Lantau, where the cultural and ecological resources are rich. From Mui Wo in the East; to Pui O along South Lantau Road; to Chi Ma Wan Peninsula, Cheung Sha, Tong Fuk and Shui Hau in the South; Tai O, Yi O and Fan Lau in the West, there are numerous villages with several hundreds of years of history, among which are many historic ruins and monument buildings. The unique local rural culture is passed down through the generations in places like the water village in Tai O and the three main villages in Mui Wo. Next to these villages are also places with high ecological value. The mangrove wetland at Shui Hau Bay, the reedbeds and mangroves at Tai O, the former paddy fields in Pui O, the streams and wetlands in Mui Wo are all highly valuable natural resources.
In the past, there were not many people on Lantau because of the lack of public transport and its distance from the city. However, ever since the construction of the highway from town to North Lantau for the Tung Chung new town and the Hong Kong International Airport in the 1990s, the whole Island has been transformed. Unending development unavoidably sacrificed some of the beauty and serenity of the rural environment and damaged ecosytems.
In order to balance development and conservation, the government presented the “Sustainable Lantau Blueprint”, indicating the approach of “Development in the North, Conservation for the South”. This implied a focus on development in North Lantau and enhancing conservation efforts for the rural and natural environment of South Lantau.
The Lai Chi Wo proposal
The conservation of rural area encompasses the protection of the natural environment, as well as that of the life and culture of the villagers, enabling these aspects to continue in sustainable manners with vitality. “Living Water & Community Revitalisation – An Agricultural-led Action, Engagement and Incubation Programme at Lai Chi Wo” is one such example.
Lai Chi Wo is in the northeast New Territories. It's a Hakka village with 400 years of history. In the past it was famous for its production of rice. But by the 1990s, the village was all but abandoned, with many villagers having left for various reasons including emigration. With most of the villagers gone, the paddyfield ecosystems also disappeared.
The “Revitalisation of Lai Chi Wo” programme started in 2013. It is a collaboration between civil society and the villagers. They have since reestablished the farming of the paddyfields, rehabilitated some of the village houses as guesthouses and engaged in education and scientific research. Lai Chi Wo has recovered some of its former glory, with its fields being farmed and more people living there.
In the 2017 Policy Address, the Chief Executive stated that Tai O, Shui Hau and Pui O in South Lantau would become pilot areas for the government’s countryside conservation policy. The Countryside Conservation Office was also established to coordinate conservation projects for remote countryside areas. Obviously learning from the success of the Lai Chi Wo programme, the government also set up a conservation fund to encourage collaboration between non-government organisations and villagers to restore local ecosystems by reinstating farming practices. Now that we have both objectives and funds, could the countryside environment of South Lantau be saved?
Major loopholes in land planning
Land utilisation is regulated by the “Town Planning Ordinance” and any land must be developed according to its designated use. In general, the government designates the utilisation type of the land according to its current use. Once a Development Permission Area Plan is issued, the development of that piece of land is regulated by the ordinance. After that, the Development Permission Area Plan will become the Outline Zoning Plan that clearly defines the use of the land, such as Open Space, Green Belt, Industrial, Commercial, Government, Organisation or Community. Unless an approval of change is given, it is unlawful to develop land in ways that do not accord with their defined uses.
Land uses of countryside lands are usually designated as Agricultural, Green Belt, or Village Type Development for the construction of low density village houses. However, the land planning in Lantau presents major loopholes that make it difficult for the government to prevent unlawful land development.
Because there was no pressure in developing Lantau in the past, the government omitted the Development Permission Area Plans and issued Outline Zoning Plans for much of the countryside, including Tai O, Yi O, South Lantau Coast and Mui Wo Fringe. Unlike Development Permission Area Plans, Outline Zoning Plans are not enforceable by law. This means that even if land owners violate the Outline Zoning Plans, they will not be prosecuted.
Irreversible environmental damage
Land has always been a precious resource, especially in Hong Kong where land prices are very high, and landowners tend to make the most profit out of their land. Hence, rural land areas are rented out as open storage, scrapyards, parking lots etc. Some are even used as tipping sites for stones and concrete from construction work. This has turned areas of once lush countryside into dead brownfield sites. Because building houses makes the most profit for the land, some landowners would even tip stones and concrete intentionally, to take away the ecological values of the land, making it easier to apply for a change in land utilisation type later on. This “first destroy, then develop” method is unfortunately common.
At present, there have been extensive damage to land in this way in rural places such as Pui O, Tong Fuk, Shui Hau and Mui Wo. Even Coastal Protection Areas, Green Belt sites and wetlands are not exempted from this predicament of being used as tipping sites, warehouses and scrapyards. Other commercial activities, such as camping, and caravan sites have also started to appear. This chaotic array of developments has wrecked our once lush and harmonious countryside.
Under the current Town Planning Ordinance, lands with Outline Zoning Plans cannot be retro-covered by Development Permission Area Plans. Therefore, if the government is committed to conserve the South Lantau countryside, they must resolve this loophole in the current law. In recent years, green groups have pointed this out repeatedly to the government, to no avail. There has been no suggestion that the government intends to review the current legislation, nor come up with any alternative solution to this problem. As long as we are not able to curb development of lands outside of their designated uses, the South Lantau countryside will continue to be destroyed, and any "conservation effort" is only a slogan.
Conservation cannot be achieved overnight
Conservation projects need support from local residents. Because the countryside culture stems from the lives of villagers and the lands are also their private properties, they are a very important element in the preservation of the rural environment. In the example of “Revitalisation of Lai Chi Wo” programme, it started with many meetings between the supporting organisations and the villagers over a long period of time. There was trust between the parties before the programme could be started, and the willingness of the villagers to collaborate became the key to success.
Although “Revitalisation of Lai Chi Wo” programme is fairly small, it is the fruit of many years of effort and planning by many organisations including The University of Hong Kong - Kadoorie Centre, Hong Kong Countryside Foundation, Produce Green Foundation and the Conservancy Association. It was a slow process involving many details, such as understanding the countryside environment resources and discovering and recording aspects of the countryside culture, customs and history, as well as the ecosystems and species. All this would help drive local cultural and ecotourism, environmental conservation and education work in the future. The work involved is demanding and time-consuming, and involve participation by villagers. Injection of funding alone would not make it work.
The remoteness of Lai Chi Wo serves to shield the Hakka village - albeit a village that has been nearly deserted for years - from rapacious property development and commercial activities. There is still no public road connecting this rural area with the outside world. It is only accessible by boat or mountain path. So it is better protected in conservation terms. This may not, however, be the case for Lantau, which is facing ever increasing development pressure. It is foreseeable that consensus cannot be easily reached, even by the local people.
In fact, there has been recent opposition from a group of villagers who did not participate in the programme, which has presented some obstacles to the project. It just goes to show that different stakeholders might have different goals, and working with villagers in countryside conservation is very challenging. Development and conservation are different in nature. Judging from the past performance of the government, one does not need to worry about the development side. On the other hand, the government must show some determination in rectifying the loopholes in the land use and development regulations, and strive harder in countryside conservation. Otherwise, “conservation for the South” will remain a pretence, while “development for the North” carries on.