NGOs unite to support HK Government conservation action

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011
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Hong Kong's environmental NGOs (envNGOs) are not exactly known for singing the praises of Government. Having long served as the environmental watchdogs in a city that prioritized economic development, very often to the detriment of important habitats, species and our wider quality of life, this is hardly surprising. So why, for the first time ever, did 25 envNGOs come together to sign a joint statement congratulating the Government on Thursday last week?

In short, the Hong Kong Government has submitted its application to extend the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to Hong Kong, back-dated to 9 May. This is important because the CBD requires member states to protect biodiversity, use natural resources sustainably, and equitably share the benefits that derive from it. Thus far 192 countries have signed up to the CBD including China, which was the first signatory.

The CBD also has a highly transparent reporting structure that allows anyone to monitor the performance of member state against those requirements. In Hong Kong, where biodiversity conservation has never been a high priority, adoption of such a framework opens up a host of new possibilities for improving conservation.

One of the key elements is that under Article 6 of the CBD each country must develop "strategies plans and programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources" otherwise known as a Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP) and "integrate the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies".

Each BSAP is drafted according to the biodiversity (different countries contain different habitats, which in turn support different species), and capabilities (rich countries generally have more resources to allocate to conservation) of the member country. To date China has submitted two BSAPs and 11 other reports.  Owing to its former status as a British colony, Hong Kong has never been included in China’s plans and reports to the CBD, hence the need for the new extension.

Hong Kong has no comprehensive framework for sustainable development. Under the CBD Hong Kong must create such a framework for biodiversity conservation (the BSAP) and integrate it into the broader policy and planning process. Once the BSAP is completed, the CBD requires regular progress reports that are published on the CBD website.

In 2009 Hong Kong-based public policy think tank Civic Exchange began working with a range of experts from academia, the Government, consultants and environmental NGOs to draft a strategic framework that could form the backbone of a BSAP for Hong Kong. This is presented in the format of a typical strategic plan.

Rather than developing a detailed action plan it sets out a mission, vision, and strategic objectives, and some initial suggestions for actions that would help to achieve those objectives. A deadline has been set for each action and objective, and a set of headline indicators, which will be reviewed each year to determine progress, completes the framework.

The second clause of the ecoNGOs' joint statement calls on the Government to make use of this framework when drafting its BSAP. A positive reception from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation (AFCD) staff who will have the responsibility of writing Hong Kong's BSAP, has opened the door to future co-operation.

The third clause invites the Government to involve the public in the plan-making process - one of the key recommendations of the CBD. This has two related benefits. First, with wider involvement more ideas, perspectives and experience can be brought to bear, and second the more involved the public is in developing the BSAP the greater the sense of public ownership and support there will be when the plan is implemented.

This is no small undertaking. Should the SAR Government choose to adopt this novel approach, a large-scale public consultation exercise, under which the BSAP is built from the bottom up, could take up to two years and involve, inviting assessing and prioritizing the inputs of thousands of people. Taking a longer view, this process could also be considered as a training programme, creating a committed and well-informed cohort of citizens with a strong interest in conservation.

It is interesting to note that the extension of the CBD to Hong Kong has come at a time when the Government has taken several positive steps to protect Hong Kong's biodiversity and countryside against those who seek to benefit by damaging the environment. These include:

  1. The passing of a bill in the Legislative Council to ban trawling (a highly destructive fishing practice) in Hong Kong waters in May 2011.

  2. The announcement by AFCD that private land in the "pocket areas" could be included inside the newly drawn boundaries of Country Parks in order to prevent unauthorized development of such land - a brave decision that will certainly draw a strong response from the Heung Yee Kuk (which represents indigenous villagers in Hong Kong).

  3. The recent crackdown on illegal structures on buildings in rural areas, which had previously been ignored, contributing to the impression that indigenous villagers were entitled to benefit from laxer interpretation of Hong Kong's laws than other citizens.

These follow the now famous case from 2010, when more than 80,000 people joined a Facebook Group protesting against an unauthorized development at Tai Long Sai Wan, a popular beauty spot in one of the "pocket areas" in Sai Kung Country Park.

Donald Tsang, the Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive responded swiftly. In his next policy address he announced that, as a direct result of the concerns expressed on the Facebook page, greater planning controls would be imposed on all 57 "pocket areas".

It is encouraging to see how officials and departments responsible for protecting biodiversity and the land have ridden the groundswell of public concern for Hong Kong's natural heritage, making new proposals and conducting more robust enforcement actions to protect the countryside, where pressure from vested interests had previously blocked such actions.

It is hoped that this positive trend can continue. The real value of establishing a broad framework for biodiversity conservation with a BSAP is that while such individual actions are laudable in themselves, they would have a far greater effect if they were contributing to a broader vision to protect and enhance Hong Kong's biological diversity.


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