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A warning notice board which bans unlawful occupation, dumping and excavation beside a canola flower field in Sha Lo Tung, Tai Po. Roy Liu / China Daily

Scenes of visitors taking selfies and souvenir photos in a canola flower field in Sha Lo Tung, Tai Po - a wetland - are concerning local conservationists and academics. They are alarmed by a growing trend of environmental concerns being ignored in favor of protecting the rights of those wanting to develop private farmland.

Sha Lo Tung's dilemma in striking a balance between conservation and development might not be uncommon in today's Hong Kong as a lot of land is of great value ecologically but remains in the hands of individuals, according to former district councilor of Tai Po Yau Wing-kwong, currently a member of the Town Planning Board.

There are a total of 77 country park enclaves in Hong Kong that were excluded as buffer areas from the boundaries of country parks. Most of the enclaves are agricultural land, valued by conservationists, or are adjacent to government land. Apart from 23 enclaves already being included into country parks, the government promised to incorporate the remaining 54 enclaves into country parks or put them into statutory town plans outlined in the 2010-11 Policy Address. But this work is yet to be finished.

Ng Hei-man, a spokesperson for the Conservancy Association, a local green group, believes the SAR will face more situations like these.

In 2013, villagers in Sai Wan blocked the village's only entrance to vent their dissatisfaction against the government's decision to incorporate the whole Tai Long Sai Wan area into Sai Kung East Country Park. The protest prevented hikers and beach lovers from going to one of the city's finest beaches.

It also forced that year's Trailwalker - a major annual fundraiser in the city - to change its route.

The former chairman of a country park committee under the government's Country and Marine Parks Board, Professor Chu Lee-man, says there is long-standing mistrust between indigenous villagers in the New Territories and the government.

In their defense, Chu said the villagers believed the government was taking their land in the name of conservation. But he added that the villagers' rights to build village houses remain intact even if their villages are incorporated into country parks.

Chu, an expert on environmental biology, said Hong Kong's wetland was shrinking, because its water sources were cut off or because the land was clogged with dumped construction waste.

Facing a dilemma, the government has come up with two solutions to strike a balance between private property rights and conservation. One is through a management agreement scheme to allow non-governmental organizations to work with landowners on conserving the land. The other is a public-private partnership scheme to give private parties a chance to develop areas under limited conditions to reduce harm to ecosystems.

In the case of Sha Lo Tung, it has applied for the public-private partnership scheme - but there has been a delay.

However, the successful canola publicity stunt in Sha Lo Tung has raised concerns of more copycat events in future with the intention of destroying the land.

There has been some damage done in Sai Kung with people undermining the value of land in the name of a revival of agriculture, Ng said. He noted a recent case on agricultural land in Pak Sha O in Sai Kung.

Although the landowners had a right to express their discontent, Yau said he hoped this sort of drastic change of ecosystem and environment would not become more common.

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(HK Edition 02/20/2016 page5)

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