Time running out for rural dream

HONG KONG: Tsoi Yuen Tsuen residents have drawn up a beautiful image of their future homes in an agricultural co-operative community with streams, fruit trees and ponds.

But the villagers have a couple of hurdles to overcome urgently or their dream homes — depicted in a master plan submitted to the government on Tuesday, Aug 31 — will remain just a dream.

First they say they need more time to seal a deal to buy land before the government moves in and demolishes their homes to make way for work on the HK$66.9 billion (RM27.05 billion) high-speed rail link to Guangzhou.

Then they have to overcome resistance from residents of two neighbouring villages who are upset that they weren't consulted before their planned new neighbours set about acquiring the 145,000 sq ft site at Pat Heung.

The whole plan could fall apart in less than six weeks when the deadline for the bulldozers to move into Tsoi Yuen Tsuen arrives. With negotiations over use of a private road to the site deadlocked, time is running out.

An activist group that has been helping the villagers has attempted to secure an extension for at least six months, but an official said even half that would be difficult.

Efforts have been made to re-house Tsoi Yuen Tsuen residents since the 450 villagers lost their fight to stay in January. The government approved 59 of 86 applications from residents who sought to continue their village lifestyle under a farming reinstatement scheme, while the Heung Yee Kuk helped them find the Pat Heung site.

The road deal is being held up because of the landowner's concerns about feelings in nearby Yuen Kong New Village and Tai Wo village.

"They fear the arrival of 200 villagers will bring in more traffic, with which the single-lane road will not be able to cope," said Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, son of kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat.

The kuk has tried to press the government to help widen the road but even if that can be done there are more subtle issues to be resolved.

"Elders of the two villages are not happy that they were the last to know about their new neighbours, they are used to a peaceful lifestyle and do not want that to be disturbed," said Pat Heung rural committee chairman Tsang Hin-keung.

Tsoi Yuen Tsuen has been a subject of controversy since last year when a series of high-profile protests were held across the city in an effort to save the village from destruction.

Activist Chu Hoi-dick called for understanding from the indigenous villagers.

"We really wanted to visit our new neighbours and introduce them to our plan, but we were not familiar with the villages' culture and were not sure who to talk to," he said. "The Heung Yee Kuk has been helping us in the mediation."

Chen Yun-chung, an assistant professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who helped plan the new village, said Tsoi Yuen Tsuen would be a green and healthy neighbour. "The number of vehicles will be capped at around 10, no cars will be allowed in the village, we will practise a low-carbon lifestyle."

Under the plan submitted to the Transport and Housing Bureau on Tuesday, a system will be devised to collect used water from each of the 59 households and recycle it for irrigation. A river uphill will be directed into an artificial stream along the village's main road strewn with fruit trees, with a kerb for villagers to relax beside the water.

"The villagers will also devote a quarter of their hard-earned land to create a co-operative society for organic farming," Chen said.

Each household would delegate a representative to work in the common farming system, who would assume a role in purchasing, farming, packaging and selling produce, while a company controlled by the villagers has been set up to handle the proceeds, splitting any surplus among the shareholders.

It is understood that officials welcomed the plan, but with limited time and financial constraints the whole enterprise is in danger of falling through. "We expect each household to invest about HK$1 million into the scheme, but some may have to pay more if participants drop out," Chen said.

In fact, three or four households have already opted out. A government official said the group was too ambitious.

"While I wish them success, I am not optimistic," the official said.

"If they had aimed lower, found a smaller plot, brought fewer households, it could have worked, but with such a big development, if any more people drop out, the rest simply may not afford to bridge the funding gap."

The site cost about HK$18 million and construction of each village house will cost about HK$500,000.

Chen blamed the government for a lack of assistance.

"If they really wish us to succeed, they should be more helpful."

The group wants the government to build basic utilities such as power cables and water and sewage systems, but the government says it will not do that for private developments. — South China Morning Post
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