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.

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.

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.

In 2010 Au hired an agricultural consultant who explained the principles of sustainable farming without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. In early 2011, Mapopo Community Farm opened, capitalizing off a growing wariness among residents of tainted foods from the mainland. Even certified organic produce is suspect – Hong Kong suspended shipments of organic baby bok choi from China in July after discovering excessive levels of cadmium.

Today Mapopo is a popular community farm, selling organic fruits and vegetables through a biweekly market at Au’s grandmother’s home. It supplies restaurants and a school with produce, composts food waste from restaurants and, for a fee, offers eco-tours and sustainability workshops.

The Hong Kong Organic Resource Center estimates that one-third of Hong Kong residents buy organic produce at least once weekly. Mapopo’s produce is not certified organic, but it – and the produce of nearby farms like it – has won the trust of locals wary of Chinese food imports.

Mapopo customer Anita Lai said she began buying organic food three years ago for one simple reason: “In the past few years, there has been so much horrible news about the food from China.” Ms. Lai, like many in Hong Kong, supports sparing Mapopo and other farms and villages by developing the 176-hectare Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling, near the proposed development area.

Prestige vs practicality 

Moving the development to a golf course isn’t as easy as it may sound. The golf course is the oldest golf course in Hong Kong and its club members are among the richest and most powerful people in the city.

Host of the prestigious Hong Kong Open, Hong Kong Golf Club is one of six private golf clubs in the city. According to an agreement with the government, the club leases its land for 1 Hong Kong dollar (less than 13 cents) per year, compared with the thousands of Hong Kong dollars small farms in Mapopo pay per month.

Razing the golf course for apartments would damage the international standing of Hong Kong, which promotes itself as “Asia’s world city,” say opponents.

There is plenty of inefficiently used land – open storage, scrap yards, parking lots – that could be developed, says Dr. Cheng. But investigating those more fully, he says, would require costly compensation and time.  “The government is looking for the easiest way to find land for development,” he says.

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