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.”