HONG KONG — When the Environmental Protection Department here nixed a $1.3-billion rail project in October that some consider essential to expanding the territory's fast-growing economic ties with mainland China, the collective reaction was shock.
Sure, the people of Hong Kong were becoming more environmentally aware, especially about air pollution. But that is different. Bad air makes the region less attractive to foreign investors, and that's bad for current prosperity and future growth.
But the rejection of the Kowloon-Canton Railway's plan to construct a needed 4.6-mile line linking Hong Kong with the mainland was made for the sake of a few birds and their fragile wetlands habitat. Although ecologists celebrated their unlikely victory, development-minded residents still find the decision hard to fathom.
Some wondered if a territory whose population has grown by at least 1 million each decade over the past 50 years and where continued development is seen as a key to its prosperity was really going to take such a move lying down.
Not even attention generated by Time magazine has dampened the railroad's enthusiasm for an appeal. The magazine's Asia edition recently singled out the decision to preserve Hong Kong's rare freshwater bird sanctuary as one of the year's five best pieces of environmental news.
The appeal hearing, expected to begin next month, is already shaping up as one of the highest-profile fights ever between environmentalists and developers in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in July 1997. Even the proposed remuneration package for the British judge being flown in from London to hear the case is a matter of media scrutiny. The judge worked here during the colonial period and is one of a small number of Britons who still occasionally serves.
There is little doubt that the railroad, widely known by its initials KCR, is launching an all-out effort to overturn the decision. It has assembled a parade of what it hopes will be high-impact witnesses from near and far.
The list includes the respected former executive director of the Hong Kong chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature, David Melville, now in New Zealand, and a trio of specialists from EIP Associates, Sacramento environmental and planning consultants whose work includes the new University of California campus near Merced.
This month, KCR added an expert of another kind: a specialist in feng shui, the Chinese practice of determining the most harmonious location for a new project and the best ways to stymie any evil spirits lurking in the area. The specialist, Paul Lam, declined to be interviewed, but he is expected to testify that any change in the planned routing of the rail link would be extremely inauspicious for villagers living near the wetlands.
Such a lineup has Hong Kong's environmentalists worried. David may have slain Goliath once, but twice is a tall order.
"The amount of money they are pouring into this case is huge," said Ho Wai-chi, executive director of Greenpeace in Hong Kong. "As environmentalists, we can't match that. It's going to be difficult for us."
The dispute centers on the fate of about 10 acres of freshwater wetlands in the Long Valley near Hong Kong's border with the mainland. The land, which is used for "wet farming," is small in size but extremely valuable, environmentalists argue.
It's a unique area for more than 200 species of indigenous or migratory birds. Some of them--like the black-faced spoonbill--are threatened with global extinction, naturalists say.
Many opponents of the rail line frame the issue in more parochial terms. For them, it's about the fate of one of the last pieces of free, open land in an increasingly crowded territory.
"Hong Kong has lost so much already," noted Carrie Ma Ka-wai, a project officer at the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society. "I worry if there will be anything left for our children to see, such as a bird habitat and wet farming."
Raymond Wong, KCR's chief spokesman, said that with passenger volume on the only existing rail link between Hong Kong and the mainland now at about 250,000 a day and growing at nearly 20% annually, the new line is vital to sustaining Hong Kong's growth. Besides, he said, KCR is proposing to build a temporary wetland north of the sanctuary during the construction period, elevate the rail line on a viaduct, then create an entirely new wetland once construction is over.
Just what the outcome will be and how long it takes to reach are uncertain, in part because it is the first appeal of its kind under Hong Kong's 2-year-old environmental control ordinance.