Hard Knocks for Hong Kong’s Trees

Wang Tong’s Ghost Tree. Photo by Larry Feign

Furious residents of a village on the south side of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island say government workers have been hacking at the roots of a landmark rubber tree, raising questions about the government’s declared effort to improve tree management.

Last Saturday, cartoonist Larry Feign was riding his bicycle near his home in Wang Tong Village, Mui Wo, when he saw three men standing near the base of the so-called Ghost Tree, a large Indian Rubber Tree that has stood in Wang Tong for at least 30 years. As he approached, he noticed two of the men chopping at one of the tree’s roots with axes.

The workers explained that they were building a new drainage channel to cope with runoff from a nearby slope that had recently been reinforced with concrete by the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD). Feign was then joined by his wife, Cathy Tsang-Feign, an avid gardener who grows many varieties of trees on her property.

“I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and the foreman said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re just chopping down some roots to make a drain,’” said Tsang-Feign. “At the time I was there they were chopping quite a few younger roots. If I had come out 15 minutes later they would have been chopping into the main root. The damage would have been fatal.”

Tsang-Feign later spoke on the phone to the engineer who had drawn up plans for the drain. When she explained that cutting the tree’s roots would damage its health, she said the engineer became defensive: “He said they’ll cut the roots and if the tree gets sick, they’ll chop it down right away.”

That would violate the CEDD’s own tree maintenance policy, which requires all trees involved in a slope improvement project to be assessed by an expert and marked either for removal, transplant or preservation. But the rubber tree in question was never included in the project’s tree assessment survey.

“It is not located on the slope and would unlikely be affected by the designed slope works,” said a CEDD spokeswoman. “When it was subsequently identified on site that trench excavation for the drainage diversion work might disturb some of the secondary roots of the tree, the work was immediately stopped.”

Alfred Sung, a private contractor hired by the government to manage the project, insists that the tree was not damaged. “We only dug one or two metres before we stopped the whole thing,” he said.

But Feign said that if he and his wife had not stopped the workers, they would have continued cutting through the tree. The path for the drainage ditch, now covered by loose soil, runs straight through the bulk of the tree’s roots. Three large roots measuring close to seven centimetres in diameter have been visibly severed.

Even minor damage can have a disastrous effect on a tree’s health, said Hong Kong University tree expert Jim Chi-yung. While Indian Rubber Trees are especially resilient, he said, “the severed roots will reduce the ability of the tree to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, and weaken its anchorage.” The sharp cuts could also invite wood-decay fungus into the tree.

For the moment, work around the Ghost Tree — so named because it grows partly on the property of an abandoned house that villagers believe is haunted — has been stopped until the CEDD can assess whether it is possible to build an alternative route for the drain. All across Hong Kong, though, trees suffer from poor maintenance and damage from construction work, which eventually leads to poor health and, in some cases, collapse.

The problem, say conservationists, is that the government’s guidelines for dealing with trees are not properly enforced. “The government has set out quite good guidelines, but those things are on paper,” said Conservancy Association arborist Ken So Kwok-yin. “How to make those papers become real in the construction sites depends on monitoring, but the monitoring is quite often very weak. Vehicles will damage trees, roots will be cut, trees that are meant to be preserved will be removed instead.”

Hong Kong’s trees fall under the jurisdiction of ten different government departments, each with its own guidelines on dealing with them. Jim Chi-yung said that the workers who often deal with trees first-hand are private contractors who have little or no knowledge of how to properly care for a tree, a situation that has led to damage that eventually causes the tree to die.

“These cowboy companies are doing lots of damage to our trees, but the government is not asking the workers to be properly trained and certified,” he said. “If they were medical doctors looking after patients a lot of people would be dying unnecessarily.”

In many cases, trees have collapsed because of decay that festered for years. Last month, a large banyan tree on Queen’s Road Central fell down during a storm; an investigation later revealed that 70 percent of its roots were rotten. In 2007, a 200-year-old tree known as King Banyan collapsed after rotting for years after concrete was poured over its roots during the construction of Kowloon Park.

Yesterday, a new survey of 1,154 large and old trees recently inspected by the government shows that 495 are in poor health. “This problem has accumulated for decades, which is why you have seen so many tree failures in recent years,” said Jim. “Trees planted in the 60s and 70s are getting big and they are suffering from decades of neglect. This is nature’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, a new tree management office with an annual budget of HK$19 million was set up to streamline the government’s tree management guidelines and prevent the kind of ad hoc treatment of trees that has been the norm until now. But the office, whose creation was spearheaded by Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, still has yet to find a head. In a written response to questions, a spokesman for the office said that it was informed of the Wang Tong incident and “subsequently carried out a site inspection of the subject tree.”

Mui Wo residents say that the rubber tree is just the latest casualty in a series of ill-conceived government projects. Many trees that are transplanted for construction works end up dying because contractors take too long to move them, said John Schofield, a member of the Living Islands Movement, a community concern group. “There are hundreds of these small contracted jobs that are farmed out to all kinds of different contractors and they’re quite often not properly supervised.”

Larry Feign, for his part, believes the drain the CEDD wants built next to the rubber tree isn’t even necessary, because the water drains naturally into a stream about twenty metres away. “The engineers looked at the [topographical] map and said, ‘Drain here,’ without being familiar with the site,” he said. “This tiny drainage ditch is more valuable to them than this magnificent old tree.”

Another version of this story was published in the July 18, 2010 edition of the South China Morning Post

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday July 18 2010at 12:07 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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