Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity
“Oscar keeps asking me for more bullets,” Dev confided to us at lunch. Dev might be 20-something. Earlier Oscar told us he is 73 and looks older. Oscar is the caretaker of a tiny Southeast Asian island marine reserve (let’s call it Ranganju, not it’s real name). He grew up far away, at least 30 kilometers, on the larger, but still not large, adjacent island. Locals call it the mainland. Dev is the new reserve manager, grew up a little further away, and studied Buddhism at the University of Hong Kong. Buying bullets wasn’t covered in the curriculum. Dev continues: “He tells me he shoots at poachers to keep them from running away when he’s trying to catch them. I’m worried that someone is going to get hurt, probably Oscar.” Buddhists think about things like that.
When he welcomed us to the reserve in the early morning, Oscar explained how life on the island and in sections of the waters around it is protected by law. Before the protection was in place, fish and coral had been decimated by overfishing and harmful fishing methods. But after fishing was restricted populations began to recover.
Regrettably, soon after the fish population began to improve in the protected areas (and also the adjacent waters) fishermen who had been trawling elsewhere realized that better fishing was back at Ranganju and returned. The preserve had relied on the local police for fishing ban enforcement. Unfortunately, the mayor of the closest “mainland city” is also the head of the local fishing syndicate. So policing to prevent poaching dwindled. Oscar took up the slack and cruises the protected reefs at night when poachers are most active. They attract fish using bright lights visible for miles. Before visiting Ranganju those lights had seemed picturesque when I’d seen them far out on the water.
Oscar recounted how he catches poachers and holds them until the police come. Sometimes the police don’t come. When they do, he said that nothing ever happens to the poachers with the right connections. At the time I was curious about how a little wizened benign-looking gnome who rescues abandoned baby birds could catch and hold poachers. I thought maybe they were just as polite as Hong Kong political “criminals”. After hearing Dev’s story about the bullets I understood better. Dev also said that soon after he became Ranganju’s manager he had been warned that Oscar wouldn’t be safe on the mainland. Dev would like Oscar to retire soon for his own protection, but Oscar won’t until he finishes paying for a young relative’s education.
In addition to bullets and responsibility for an elderly caretaker, Dev also has more mundane concerns. The small staff that lives on the island preparing meals for enviro-learners and eco-tourists like me has to import everything, including bottled water. When Dev became manager he began waste reduction and proper disposal measures. The most notable for First World residents relates to packaging. People in this part of Asia have so little money that they typically can only afford to buy products like shampoo and toothpaste in budget-hotel-style small, plasticized foil packets. These “sachets” have a huge waste-to-product ratio. The Ranganju staff had been disposing of empty sachets and all other waste in pits on the island. Dev began providing personal care products to staff in bulk containers and instituted a policy that all waste be returned to the mainland for proper disposal there. The policy applies not only to waste generated by Ranganju’s operations. It also requires that school groups visiting the preserve carry back the waste from the snacks and beverages that they bring to the island. At first some school administrators grumbled, but now groups bring snacks and beverages having less packaging.
Dev told us that local mainland mayoral elections are coming up. He hopes that a candidate without fishing ties will be elected. That might help solve at least some of his challenges.
At recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) beach environment survey I discovered there’s more wildlife at some Hong Kong beaches than is apparent at first. If you look closely in the rocks near low tide line and maybe turn over a few cobbles you’ll find a variety of small crabs, snails, shellfish, and other life I can’t name. On the other hand, when you sift through the sand near the high line you also find there is much more buried plastic debris than is apparent on the surface.
Patrick Yeung is a Hong Kong native, less than 30 years old, and WWF’s Coastal Watch project manager. He’s studying marine ecology for a Ph.D. in biology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is responsible for overseeing WWF’s partner organizations and their more than 800 volunteers that help carry out Coastal Watch’s field activities. Following uniform scientific protocols, volunteers under the guidance of trained professionals will conduct ecological, litter, and micro-debris surveys and litter cleanups at 27 Hong Kong coastal sites over the next two years. The efforts are funded by the Hong Kong government and WWF hopes the information collected will be used to develop stronger marine conservation policies.
At the two surveys I attended, Patrick was an enthusiastic hands-on leader. Not only did he help explain and demonstrate protocol procedures and ensure that multiple inexperienced volunteer teams correctly completed all 29 survey components, he also was a tireless question answerer, flora and fauna identifier, and ecology teacher. Both survey days were warm and humid and all of us needed to take breaks, frequently for most of us, except Patrick. Whenever the people he was working with stopped for a break, he’d move on to the next group. It’s obvious that he’s positive that what he’s doing is important and makes a difference. His example inspired the hot and sweaty rest of us to believe the same about our efforts.
For Patrick, his “sense of belonging to the environment” began with hiking and camping as a scout when he was a secondary student and continued through his undergraduate days and six years of marine research focused on the ecology of Hong Kong and the surrounding region. Patrick joined Coastal Watch because he believes “doing scientific research alone is not enough…. It’s important to engage the public to join hands to conserve the environment together….”
That’s why in addition to collecting data that can be used to inform government decision-making, the Coastal Watch program serves the equally important, perhaps more important, role of raising environmental awareness. From much earlier personal experience I know that unremarkable experiences can have lasting effects. One summer break, high school friends and I worked as school janitors for $1.90 an hour. In addition to learning that squirt-bottle battles with acid cleaner hurt and probably aren’t very safe, our consciousness about school environments was elevated. After having to personally deal with the results left by normal clueless high school users, I don’t think any of us ever again wrote clever notes on walls or bathroom partitions, stuck gum under desks (schools still had desks in those days), or left trash, food, or sweaty clothes in lockers. Hopefully Coastal Watch participants will similarly assimilate, act on, and pass on the basic truth (most people must already sense it) that it’s easier and less costly to avoid polluting our environment than it is to clean and restore it.
For those of us who grew up in the U.S. in the 60s and early 70s, it’s difficult to understand why there is still a pollution problem, let alone how it could be getting worse. We have a strong faith in the underlying positive power of technological innovation and political change. On May 25, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced the nation’s commitment to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. At that point the U.S. had not even orbited a man around the earth in space, but just a little over eight years later, on July 20, 1969, the U.S. space program landed two men on the moon. The environmental problems that exist now are basically pretty much the same problems that existed in 1961. There have been some successes, but for people who came of age in the U.S.’s can-do era of technology and social progress, sustainability advancement is frustratingly slow. For example, fluidized bed coal burners are currently considered in China to be an advanced technique of “clean coal” (that’s an oxymoron) technology that apparently China has yet to adopt for its new coal-fired electric generating plants. I remember learning about fluidized bed burners in 1973 or ’74 at a Saturday morning high school science series held by Westinghouse Electric at its corporate research and development center in western Pennsylvania. Those were the days when Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. was still hanging on as one of the world’s corporate, industrial, and technology R&D capitals.
So when I heard through the grapevine that my childhood family friend Eric Autenreith had begun, in his mid 50s, to pursue a Master of Sustainability degree at Chatham University, I wasn’t too surprised. I figured that he simply recognized a big problem that needs to be fixed; and our generation believes that when we see a problem, we can and should fix it. We know that with enough determination and hard work we can accomplish anything we set our minds to. After all, it’s our contemporaries and those just a bit older who moved the U.S. along the road to civil rights, stopped the Vietnam war, invented the internet, and founded Microsoft and Apple. And because of those examples I optimistically suspect that many of us who haven’t yet done as much as we’d like to help change the world, feel that it’s about time we did.
In reconnecting with Eric I found that he has in fact been doing his part to help the world for a while. As a teenager I’d been envious of the round-the-world family sailboat trip and its sojourn at the Galapagos Islands that Eric credits as a primary shaper of his world view. After that, for 22 years as a whitewater raft guide in U.S. national parks, he provided countless people the opportunity to experience the grandeur and fragility of nature firsthand, in the hope that they would return to their everyday lives with a greater appreciation of our environment. Later with West Virginia’s Plateau Action Network (PAN), he’s continued educating the public about the environment and been on the front lines of fighting the negative ecological impacts of mountain-top removal mining and Marcellus shale fracking, two not-so-positive examples of technological innovation and politics. Eric’s returning for more study was motivated by a desire to learn how to more effectively champion the environment, not recent recognition of a problem. He recognized the problem decades ago.
All photos and the Hong Kong Coastal Watch video are by Dante Archangeli. The names Ranganju, Oscar, and Dev are fictitious but their story is real.