Conservationists have criticised wildlife NGO WWF Hong Kong over its plan to redevelop a visitor building at Mai Po Nature Reserve, citing poor environmental practices.
The NGO said in 2017 that its Peter Scott Field Studies Centre would be upgraded into a two-storey building between this April and January 2021. The site is zoned for government, institution or community use, which means that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is not required by the Environmental Protection Department, despite the area being identified as having international importance by the Ramsar Convention. The nature reserve was set up to protect the wetland from development.
“All development proposals in the surrounding area require an EIA, including projects in other parts of the wetlands but not inside the Ramsar site,” environmental campaigner John Allcock told HKFP. “This is to ensure that there are no detrimental environmental impacts to the Ramsar site.”
Allcock added that WWF Hong Kong should produce an EIA of the proposal as a gesture of goodwill instead of exploiting a loophole to avoid one. “This would demonstrate the best practice of an EIA to other developers so that others can learn and can produce better reports in future,” he said.
No ‘detrimental impact’
However, WWF Hong Kong CEO Peter Cornthwaite told HKFP that they are proposing a sustainable and environmentally friendly design for the new building, with sewage treatment to ensure no pollution of the wetlands. “During construction, mitigation measures will ensure that the potential environmental impacts will not have a detrimental impact on the conservation value of the surrounding wetlands,” he said.
Cornthwaite added that the Peter Scott Field Studies Centre would be described in an EIA for other WWF construction projects in the nature reserve, but did not say whether the centre would have its own EIA.
According to the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, if a project has been split in order to avoid EIA requirements, the government can decide whether to consider it as one project and request an EIA.
‘Immense’ environmental significance
Critics have urged WWF Hong Kong in a petition to provide a reason for the project and evaluate its potential environmental impact through an EIA: “The environmental significance of Mai Po is immense,” Martin Williams, founder of ecotourism website Hong Kong Outdoors, told HKFP.
Williams added that money for the development project would be best spent elsewhere: “For one thing, if a lot of money is available, why isn’t much of it being spent on habitat improvement, to attract more birds and other wildlife? The reserve is big, and WWF has lacked funds for managing all of it to [its] best potential.”
The petition had almost 100 signatories as of Tuesday evening.
Hong Kong’s wetlands have often been a centre of conflict between conservationists and developers. FactWire revealed last year that around ten groups of local and mainland investors had spent at least HK$470m to buy up a third of all land lots in protected areas over the past decade, despite environmental restrictions.
Meanwhile, Lok Ma Chau Loop – an 85-hectare stretch of wetland on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border – has been earmarked for a HK$20billion development project to turn it into an innovation and technology park four times the size of Shatin’s Science Park.