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Hong Kong weighs the importance of its last farms

Concerns over the safety of imported food from China – Hong Kong's largest supplier – have many criticizing a new plan to turn much of the last of its farmland into apartments.

By Chris HortonContributor / August 17, 2013



Ma Shi Po Village, Hong Kong

Five years ago, when the Hong Kong government decided to push ahead with a plan to build tens of thousands of apartment units near its border with China, few anticipated anyone caring about the territory’s last remaining farms – let alone fight against it.

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But growing concerns over safety of food imported from China – the largest supplier of food to the former British colony – have led many to criticize the wisdom of sacrificing much of the farmland that remains.

Now, many are petitioning the government to save the farmland and some have suggested the government instead construct the apartments on Hong Kong’s oldest golf course. And they’re getting a morale booster: Late last month, legislators passed a non-binding motion in favor of developing the golf course and sparing existing villages. But the fight won’t be an easy one.

Though the city of more than 7 million presents a glittering modern image to outsiders, the government provides subsidized housing for more than half of the population. And thousands of people of Hong Kong are currently on the waiting list for more public housing.

The first stage of the $15.5 billion Northeast New Territories development plan proposes to build more than 60,000 apartment units, of which 60 percent are earmarked for government-subsidized public housing to ease the housing crisis there. The apartments, expected to house 175,000, are not slated to be completed until 2022 because of Hong Kong’s slow development process. The plan could dislodge more than 6,000 villagers from some 333 hectares,  roughly one-third of Hong Kong's active farmland, frustrating the rural population, non-indigenous villagers, and activists.

Hong Kong’s farms are worth saving, says Cheng Luk-ki of conservation group Green Power adding that the farmland serves several important purposes: providing a buffer between city and countryside, moderating the urban microclimate and flood risks, and maintaining a local food supply.

A flutter of entrepreneurialism

Becky Au, who has lived her whole life in Ma Shi Po Village, which could be razed next year if the plan is approved. Ms. Au’s grandparents settled here in the 1950s after fleeing China.

“When my grandparents first came here they had nothing,” Au said. “They built our home and started to farm here.” When Au learned Ma Shi Po might be developed, she convinced her three-generation family and five neighboring households to save the village by increasing its importance to the local community.

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