HongKong Focus

Down on the farm

By Michelle Fei (HK Edition)
Updated: 2011-03-03 07:49
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 Down on the farm

Becky Au sells organic vegetable produced on Baby Horse Organic Farm. Edmond Tang / China Daily

 Down on the farm

Vegetable sold on Becky Au's farm Edmond Tang / China Daily

 Down on the farm

Becky Au's father works on the farm. Edmond Tang / China Daily

Down on the farm

Hong Kong's farmland has nearly vanished. In the once thriving village of Ma Shi Po, the few remaining residents prepare to move to make way for high-rise development. Yet, one former resident has moved back to wage her own battle to save the vanishing farmland. Michelle Fei reports.

Children of farmers these days make their way to urban areas to find careers once school days are over. Running counter to the trend, 25-year-old Hong Kong resident Becky Au quit her clerical job in Central last summer and returned to Ma Shi Po, the place where she was born and grew up. Ma Shi Po is a farming village in the northeastern part of Fanling in the New Territories.

From white-collar to farmer, Au's motivation was not money.

Au set up a "community farm" named Baby Horse (Ma Po Po) in Ma Shi Po, growing organic vegetables fertilized by food waste, such as coffee grounds, tofu dregs and fish offal. The waste products are collected from nearby markets. The produce is sold to local residents.

For Au, the farm Baby Horse was not only a career move. It was a way to save her home in Ma Shi Po, one of the few sizable area of farmland that still survives under the fast-turning economic wheel of the city. Still, the area appears on the verge of being demolished to make way for residential housing development in the coming years.

"Government told us, this (demolishing Ma Shi Po) is a way to urbanization, but I don't think so," said Au. "Land should not just be considered as goods, the relationship between people and land should not just be a business relationship.

"By setting up this Baby Horse Farm, we simply want to tell Hong Kong people that besides tall buildings, land could also produce green vegetables; besides finance, Hong Kong also has agriculture," said Au.

A losing battle

The future of Ma Shi Po swerved in a new direction in 1998, when government included the farming village in the North East New Territory New Development Areas (NDAs), a major infrastructure project. Kwu Tung North, Fanling North and Ping Che/Ta Kwu Ling were identified as suitable.

Generally, only six percent (75 hectares) of the 1,136.2 hectares included in the North East New Territory NDAs was planned for agricultural use, and none of that was in Ma Shi Po, according to the Planning Department.

The plan called for Ma Shi Po village to be demolished and surrounding farmland given over for the construction of high-rise buildings.

Henderson Land Development Company Limited had begun acquiring land in Ma Shi Po even before the government revealed the NDAs plan in 1998, according to a spokesman for Henderson. Demolition of Ma Shi Po began 10 years ago: houses were destroyed; villagers left their homes. Most of the land was left vacant.

The village, sits in shambles and seems to become more desolate day by day.

"They destroyed the houses so that people couldn't move back. With fewer and fewer people living here, the village gradually became 'uninhabitable'," said Chan Kim-ching, a member of North East New Territories Development Concern Group, also a villager of Ma Shi Po.

Chan told China Daily that Ma Shi Po once was a vibrant village before 2000, when 600 to 700 families lived here. However, only around 80 households remain nowadays.

"I don't want to move and I don't know where to move to, but I have no choice but to leave if Henderson people come and ask me to go," said a villager surnamed Wong. The 70-something man had lived there his whole life.

Wong explained that he was non-indigenous to Ma Shi Po, so once the landowner signed the contract with Henderson, Wong had no choice but to leave. He didn't really have a say in the matter, despite being a resident for decades.

Wong's case was far from solitary. About 60 to 70 percent of residents in Ma Shi Po were non-indigenous, according to Chan. Once the land was sold, the majority of villagers of Ma Shi Po effectively became homeless, with no right of compensation.

"Once the project passes public consultation, the government will buy land from landowners, whether they are individual villagers or developers. Thus the situation will remain the same for non-indigenous since they don't own the land in the first place," said Lo Kwok-kuen, spokesman for the North East New Territory NDAs.

A spokesman for Henderson confirmed to China Daily that the company already owned the majority of land at Ma Shi Po, and negotiations to acquire an even greater proportion are ongoing with the other landowners.

"It's a done deal," Wong concluded while picking vegetables growing on his small farm. No arguments, no struggles. The lifelong villager of Ma Shi Po is helpless.

The last fight

Au, an enthusiastic young woman, says the battle is not over. The outcome for the village of Ma Shi Po is still to be decided.

Public consultation towards the North East New Territories NDAs will move to the final stage in 2011, whether the project will be passed or not still remains unknown.

"If it (Baby Horse Farm) grows up strong enough, or we attract enough support and attention, the government may reconsider the plan or restore land use in Ma Shi Po to 'Agriculture', rather than 'Commercial'," said Au.

On Au's small pitch, organic vegetables such as tomatoes, spinach, and lettuce are sold at half the price of outside markets. Fertilized by only food waste and water, the products look fresh and vibrant.

For Au's mother, a typical farmer who spent her entire life on the land, "urbanization" is something of a mystery to her. Her philosophy is simple: land can consume waste and produce food.

"The government says that Hong Kong's running out of landfill for wastes, meanwhile, they are taking our land, which can consume waste, for buildings," said Au's mother. "I really can not understand their logic."

Au added, "Development does not necessarily mean economic development. Developing agriculture is also development. More important, it is sustainable and eco-friendly development."

Inevitable fate

The fact is that farmland in the finance-orientated city is disappearing and the agriculture industry is shrinking.

As of 2010, only 1.72 percent (1,900 hectares) of the city's 110,400 hectares of land area was farmed. Some 4,700 farmers, about 0.13 percent of the city's total work force, are engaged in agriculture. Compare that with statistics from 2001, when 2,400 hectares was under cultivation by about 5,800 farmers, according to the Agriculture, Fishes and Conservation Department (AFCD).

What's more, by the end of 2009, the land use for vegetables in Hong Kong was a meager 314 hectares, producing 2.4 percent of fresh vegetables to citizens, according to the AFCD.

"Agriculture in Hong Kong follows the general policy framework of the free market. Except where social considerations are overriding, the allocation of resources in the economy is left to market forces with minimal government intervention," a spokesman for the AFCD explained concerning the shrinking trend of the industry.

"The shrinking trend of Hong Kong agriculture industry is inevitable. On one hand, the city doesn't have enough resources, either land or manpower, for farming; on the other hand, it is the law of economic development," said Tao Zhigang, professor of the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong.

Professor Tao explained that the law of economic development for agriculture, or other primary industries, will gradually be replaced by tertiary industries, including finance.

The 2011-12 budget brought down by Financial Secretary John Tsang on Feb 23 showed that total GDP of the city in the first three quarters of 2010 was HK$1,125.2 billion, of which only HK$631 million, or around 0.05 percent, was contributed by agriculture, fishing, mining and quarrying. Meanwhile, the financial and insurance sector contributed more than 18 percent of the total GDP.

"Forget about all the 'developing' and 'urbanization' theories, we just want to let the government know that Ma Shi Po is our home, and home never changes," Chan said.

(HK Edition 03/03/2011 page4)