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NOVEMBER 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Juanito Canonizado.

Bird Power
A conservationist victory marks a watershed in Hong Kong

ALSO:

Estrada's Options
:For the Philippines and for Asia, resignation would be least painful

Hong Kong's love affair with money is legendary. During the territory's decades-long rise from humble entrepot to international trading and financial hub, economic development has always trumped all other priorities. By contrast, environmental concerns got short shrift, with conservationists long frustrated by toothless protection laws, Big Business polluters and public apathy. That may now be a thing of the past. Last week, Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department (EPD) vetoed a plan by the government-owned Kowloon-Canton Railway Corp. (KCRC) to build a major line through a rural wetland named Long Valley. Reason: Though the project would have brought enormous economic benefits, it would also have destroyed the winter habitat of rare, endangered bird species. For the small but expanding number of local green groups, the decision was a stunning and unprecedented victory.

It may also be a watershed in the eco-consciousness of Hong Kong. In recent years, as the territory's air became alarmingly polluted and its magnificent harbor was shriveled by reclamation, middle-class citizens increasingly voiced their concerns. That prompted the government to cut central-harbor reclamation and unveil multi-billion-dollar plans to fight pollution. And while EPD chief Rob Law said the railway rejection was based solely on environmental factors, many people noted it had followed a successful, year-long campaign by green groups to make Long Valley a public issue.

Such developments suggest that local authorities have started seriously to heed the burgeoning public desire to protect Hong Kong's delicate environment. The Battle for Long Valley also means that corporations will henceforth need to factor ecological concerns into their business plans. As president Ng Cho-nam of the local Conservancy Association puts it: "It tells government planners that they must place a higher priority on conservation, or they will face trouble."

Yet by ruling in favor of the birds, authorities face trouble from other quarters. Villagers who own the Long Valley wetlands are angry that their aspirations for development and higher property values have been sacrificed for avian interests. Some are threatening to destroy the habitat. If the government is unable to dissuade the villagers from such action, it should consider buying the wetlands from them. For its part, the KCRC has vowed to appeal the decision in court. That could bog the case down in expensive and time-consuming litigation, possibly delaying other needed infrastructure and development projects. If the KCRC truly has the public interest at heart, it should seriously consider building its rail line around the wetlands, which would cost a bit more.

Such decisions as Long Valley always involve trade-offs, usually between short-term economic benefits and conservation. Yet the two concerns need not be contradictory. The government could, for example, set up a fund to preserve ecological sites of special interest. It could then open them to tourists, earning income. Besides, the issue goes beyond merely preserving a healthful and attractive environment. Ecological sensitivity is a cornerstone of sustainable development, which should be a key concern to relatively wealthy societies like Hong Kong. That more and more Hong Kongers feel that way is indeed encouraging.

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