Toronto Star

Apartments versus shellfish


Squeezed tightly between two megacities with a combined population of 20 million are some of East Asia’s most important wetlands, where rare birds sing out amid traditiona­l shrimp ponds.

Look up, and looming right above this rustic setting are the crush of skyscraper­s in Shenzhen, China. Just out of view behind some hills to the south are the congested streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

But in this corner of northwest Hong Kong, tens of thousands of cormorants, herons, egrets, sandpipers and other birds, including endangered species like the black-faced spoonbill, gather each winter to feed on the mud flats. Eucalyptus trees line a path that cuts along the shrimp and fish ponds, where small restaurant­s serve up the day’s harvest.

For bird watchers, bike riders and day trippers from Hong Kong, the wetlands offer welcome respite from the city’s crowds.

But in a place where land prices are among the most expensive in the world, shopping malls and apartment blocks are far more profitable than shellfish, and the area is increasing­ly attractive to developers.

“In a few years, this will all be housing,” said Yip Ka-kit, 32, as he took a break from riding his bicycle around Nam Sang Wai, a 400-acre wedge of the wetlands bounded by two rivers and filled with fish ponds and reed beds. “People in Hong Kong only care about the economy.”

Signs warning of the punishment for arson — up to life in prison — hang prominentl­y in the wetlands, a reminder of one of their most imminent threats: fire. A series of blazes this spring scorched parts of Nam Sang Wai. It is not the first time suspicious fires have burned in the area, which environmen­talists and officials believe may have been set to undermine its ecological value.

For centuries, rice paddies filled the area. Then beginning in the 1940s, the people who worked this land turned the paddies into fish ponds that earned far more than rice.

For decades, landowners have sought to develop the area, only to be rebuffed by the courts and government agencies.

The total size of the wetlands area is about 4,350 acres. Part of the wetlands are off limits to large-scale developmen­t, including the Mai Po Nature Reserve, which is protected under the Ramsar Convention, an internatio­nal treaty for the conservati­on of wetlands.

The reserve includes traditiona­l shrimp farming ponds that have largely disappeare­d from the rest of China, known as gei wai.

The most recent developmen­t proposal in Nam Sang Wai would have included apartments for 6,500 people. Environmen­tal groups, however, oppose the plan.

For now, the area remains a popular weekend destinatio­n.

“Of course I want them to preserve this place,” said Yip. “If they fill in everywhere in Hong Kong with houses, there will be nothing left to do here.”

 ?? ANTHONY WALLACE AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Some of the 4,350 acres are protected under an internatio­nal conservati­on treaty.
ANTHONY WALLACE AFP/GETTY IMAGES Some of the 4,350 acres are protected under an internatio­nal conservati­on treaty.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada