Green Notes Or Green Life? A Panel on Development and Conservation

[ ‘SHARE’ Jan-Feb 2013 – Green Notes Or Green Life? ] FOCUS: TOPICAL INTERVIEW

Last year Vince worked as a volunteer at a wetland forest in Vietnam.

Reporter> WU Ying Lun

In recent years conservation and development has become a hot topic locally, but other countries are also facing similar struggles and challenges. Dickson Wong, Vince Cheung and Samuel Chiu, three Christian conservationists, tell us about different countries’ stance on development and the church’s involvement.

Economy and conservation can coexist and be mutually beneficial

Many years ago, economic benefits were the biggest consideration in mainstream developments in Hong Kong, and culture and environmental conservation was often ignored. But the past decade saw increasing civil movements such as conservation of Queen’s Pier, anti-express rail construction to preserve Choi Yuen Village, and anti-North East New Territories Development Plan. Activists not only agitate for conservation of culture and the environment, they also expect the government and public to reconsider the goals, results and the processes of various developments, asking questions such as ‘why and for whom is the development’, ‘what is the cost of imbalanced development’, and ‘how people can be involved in the process’.

‘Save Lung Mei’ is high profile conservation movement. From regional consultation, environmental assessment, funding approval, to finalisation, the proposal to develop Lung Mei Beach has lasted over ten years, but environmental groups are still urging the government to withdraw the plan because they keep finding flaws with the government’s environmental impact assessment report and insist that development would damage precious coastal ecology.

Well-versed in marine ecology, Dickson is at the frontline of this movement and in 2007 he mobilised an online anti-beach movement. In July 2011, just before the development was due to start, Dickson and other members held a ‘farewell ceremony’ by relocating some marine creatures; dramatically it attracted publicity and, within a few months, media reports, environmental groups and public pressure all requested the government to put the plan on hold, and even led to the start of a citizens group called ‘Lung Mei Coastline Education Centre’. This was greatly comforting to Dickson who teaches ecological education in a secondary school.

 ‘It was truly a miracle to me!’ Dickson remembers the Lung Mei movement.

If not pushed to the extreme, economic benefits and conservation are actually not in conflict and can coexist beneficially. Dickson had proposed that Lung Mei beach and nearby Ting Kok be designated as a marine park, so that the local wealth of marine life may be preserved and the geographical advantage and transportation convenience can promote education as well as develop tourism, making it a win-win situation for the environment, economy and society.[1]

Enslavement of the land by both the rich and the poor

Many poor countries see eradicating poverty as an urgent matter, and they must choose between the economy and conservation. Vietnam is assessed as a ‘lower middle income’ nation, with 2011 GNI per capita at US$1,260[2]. Conservation concerns could jeopardise economic development and Vince could understand the dilemma.

‘You see thousands of poor people in Ho Chi Minh City; many locals there say they are poor and want to get out of poverty. …Big hotels are being built, mostly operated by foreigners, and one can see the government’s intention to boost the economy with tourism. A hotel there was built on reclaimed land. …The government also knows that many environmental problems are created.’

Vince points out that foreign investors lead tourism there and the locals have limited involvement. Even if tourism could bring employment and better income opportunities, the cost of environmental damage means that the economic development is not sustainable and ultimately the locals benefit only very little from it.

What about the wealthier European and American countries? Samuel, a Canadian resident, uses oil mining to illustrate how economic development still involves mankind enslaving the land.

‘Canada holds the world’s second-largest oil reserves, and drilling is a major source of national income and employment… but the drilling process requires levelling of plantation slopes, using huge amount of high-pressure hot water and energy. Furthermore, some oil companies have been exposed as the cause of pollution through improper sewage treatment.’ Since oil drilling brings so many problems to the environment, can we reduce our dependence on oil? Regrettably, Samuel tells us that because the reserves are so abundant, there is no incentive to develop other renewable energy.

Pursue a development with reconciliation between mankind and earth

Today’s tension between conservation and development stems mainly from an obsessive economic pursuit, using economic benefits to define a society’s mode of development while neglecting the values and significance of its history, culture and natural environment. More precisely, people have forgotten their original identity and duty in a created world.

198_pic3Samuel pastored a church in Canada and now endeavours to mobilise Christian conservation.

Samuel now works with A Rocha, a Christian conservation and development organisation. Combining Christian faith with environmental protection concepts, its conservation work is global and seeks to restore a peaceful state (shalom) between God, man and the land, so that mankind may coexist with and look after the earth.

‘We went to a village in the eastern coast of South Africa and saw that population expansion and agricultural development greatly damaged the tropical rainforests. To protect them and the indigenous people’s livelihood, ecological tourism was developed, such as setting up wildlife observation points, which successfully brought income to the indigenous people. Not only did this motivate active conservation of rainforests, people could also afford to send their children to school.’ The project not only succeeded in conserving the rainforests but also facilitated an ideal community development, in which the locals had full participation in the process and they shared the resultant benefits, and furthermore the land got nurtured and looked after again.

Self-examination and practising faith by conduct

On steering the church towards conservation, Dickson, Vince and Samuel all agree that it is not a short-term achievable matter. Samuel recently attended ‘The Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel’ in Jamaica. The Lausanne Movement is a significant evangelistic movement of evangelicals, but on this occasion only three Asian representative (from Singapore and Philippines) was present, showing that awareness of conservation is still very low in Asia and amongst the Chinese churches.

Nevertheless, Samuel remains hopeful. ‘I used to pastor a church in Canada, and our weekly communion used many polystyrene cups. One day it dawned on me that I was being hypocritical because, as a pastor, I preached about saving the world and yet was burying a pile of non-degradable materials just outside the church! I spent eight months thereafter taking photos of post-service rubbish, showed them to the deacons, and bought some reusable utensils for the church. After a while, the elders were the first to change and they started bringing their own cutlery; then children started talking about carbon reduction.’ Compared with ministry top-down promotion or exhortation, the acts of self-examination on practising our faith can bring about more direct and powerful changes.

Environmental protection has a key function in poverty relief. Without considering environmental sustainability, development plans can hardly be accomplished. We hope that our three guests have sufficiently introduced to those of as who care for the poor a new angle on ‘what’ and ‘for whom’ development is, and how churches and believers may be involved in conservation and development.

Extended Action

How we may exercise self-examination and practise our faith through right conduct:

  1. Ethical consumption – opt for environmentally friendly / fairtrade / social enterprise products, changing the world through alternative consumer behaviour
  2. Carbon reduction – self-examine during Lent, through carbon-reduction behaviours practise a simple and caring life (for details, see
  3. Sabbath-Keeping – say ‘stop’ to consumption and live a simple life

[1] Dickson, ‘People can swim in a marine park, why do we have to lay sand?’, House News (a news website in Hong Kong)