The Lands Department on Sunday brought the axe down on two decades-old banyan trees on Hong Kong Island despite opposition from conservationists, some of whom staged hours-long protests at the site and tried in vain to prevent the chopping activity.
Officials from the department had the trees removed, arguing that the old banyans had become weak and were at the risk of crashing to the ground, posing a danger to pedestrians.
The trees that got the axe were located along Bonham Road in Mid-Levels, right beside the entrance of Tang Chi Ngong Building of the University of Hong Kong.
Aged more than 80 years and standing several stories tall, the trees were perched very close to the road with their roots occupying a large part of the sidewalk.
According a document submitted by the Lands Department to the Central and Western District Council, one of the trees had been rotten inside its central part, while the other suffered from fungal infections, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
The department also noted in the document that the wall, which the two trees had long merged with, was clearly at risk of collapse, given the multiple protrusions and cracks on it.
Apart from this, the trees might also lose support and fall down if heavy rain washes off the dirt around their roots, it said.
To protect public safety, the department decided to remove the tress on Sunday morning.
At around 6 am before workers arrived, conservationists, holding banners that read “Old trees are affectionate” and “Protect Hongkongers’ history”, gathered at the scene to demand the move be aborted.
They were joined by several lawmakers, including Tanya Chan Suk-chong from the Civic Party, Ted Hui Chi-fung from the Democratic Party, and Au Nok-hin.
Hui, who is also a Central and Western district councilor, criticized the government for not exploring all of the other ways to preserve the trees.
District Officer Susanne Wong Ho Wing-sze claimed that the Lands Department has been preserving the trees since 2015, but now it was deemed that they should be removed immediately since no one knows for sure when they might collapse.
The officer said the trees had to be chopped down as there are no other ways to address the safety issue.
After several hours of fruitless negotiations and quarrels, the Lands Department staff ordered protesters to leave, warning they may be prosecuted if they don’t.
About 30 police officers were on stand-by at the scene.
Workers finally began their work in the afternoon, several hours after they arrived at the site to do the felling work. The protesters, meanwhile, were removed from the scene eventually.
After inspecting the trees, Chiu Siu-wai, a former professor at the School of Life Sciences of the Chinese university of Hong Kong, said she does not believe they were in immediate risk of collapsing.
She added that the government’s report did not provide objective data showing the conditions of the tree roots, thus failing to justify removal of them.
Authorities should have spent more time discussing how to preserve the trees, rather than rushing to cut the ancient banyans, Chiu added.
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