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SEN's speech at the 4th International UNESCO Conference on Geoparks in Langkawi, Malaysia (English only) (with photo)

     Following is the speech by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Edward Yau, on "Geosites for urbanites" today (April 12) at the 4th International UNESCO Conference on Geoparks in Langkawi, Malaysia:

Ladies and gentlemen,

     First of all, I have to commend the organiser of this conference for choosing an extremely insightful theme for this session: "Communicating Geoheritage". Since Hong Kong announced our own geopark project, I have often been asked a question by our news-savvy reporters, a question, I must admit, that initially left me dumbfounded. They asked: The rocks have been here for millions of years, what is so new about them? When I thought about it, I could see that there is indeed some truth to the question.

     It is true that the rocks have been here for millions of years. They record traces of the evolution of the Earth dating back even before the time of human habitation. True, there's really nothing "new" about our geoheritage, in the literal sense of the word. In launching the geopark project, the challenge for us lies in reinventing the geoheritage and communicating it to our people with a view to reinforcing the significance of geo-conservation as part of green living. It is about arousing people's interest and bringing them on to the trail of Earth's history.

Rediscover Hong Kong

     What is the image of Hong Kong in your mind? The typical picture is a beautiful harbour fronted by rows of skyscrapers. This is an image that epitomises our status as an international financial centre, alongside New York and London, and our identity as a cosmopolitan city. But other than the familiar image of a hectic and vibrant business and trading hub, Hong Kong has a geo-treasure that is just a stone's throw from our concrete jungle. It is so close, yet is such a stark contrast to our man-made skyline. In some ways, this geo-treasure is no less important than our economic achievements. It makes us stand out from even New York and London. Hong Kong may not have that many huge man-made parks in the centre of our city, but within 30 minutes' ride by car, one can access the vast geosites of Hong Kong and get immersed in the time corridor of geo-history. They are truly nature's magnificent creation.

     Let me share with you some facts about Hong Kong. Our total area is about 1,100 sq km. The last hundred years of development have seen buildings erected on about 25% of our land, largely around both sides of Victoria Harbour. This has happened in the typical efficient style of Hong Kong. As of today, within this 25% portion of Hong Kong's total area, there are a total of 40,000 buildings. Beyond this urban landscape, some 40% of our area is designated as country park, or protected areas. This means that they are protected by law against any development without permission. The first country park designation was made in June 1977. Since then, the number of protected areas in Hong Kong has reached 24. The "youngest" one, North Lantau Country Park, was designated as recently as two years ago. It is one of our largest parks and its designation has added 2% of Hong Kong's green land to our stock of country parks. So the protected green area of Hong Kong keeps on "growing" as our city's economic presence expands. Ours is a living example that urbanisation and economic prosperity do not necessarily have to be attained at the expense of nature conservation, specifically geo-heritage and biodiversity. Hong Kong is proud to bring this unique experience to the international knowledge pool of geoparks.

     Our country parks receive over 12 million visitors every year, nearly twice the population of Hong Kong. Many of the visitors are engaged in hiking as a pastime or physical training as a break from their otherwise urban lifestyle. There are also birdwatchers and nature lovers who spend their days-off appreciating the biodiversity of Hong Kong. Within the small area of Hong Kong, there are more than 240 species of butterflies, 116 species of dragonflies, and 495 species of birds.

The Hong Kong National Geopark

     In November last year (2009), we saw the establishment of Hong Kong's first National Geopark. It is made up of two regions of a distinctly different geological nature. The Sai Kung Volcanic Rock Region showcases spectacular hexagonal volcanic columns. The complete formation covers an area of more than 100 sq km and some rock columns are as big as two metres in diameter. These columns are acidic, which makes them particularly interesting.

     The Northeast New Territories Sedimentary Rock Region represents the most comprehensive stratigraphy of sedimentary rocks in Hong Kong, ranging from 400-million-year-old Devonian sandstone and conglomerate to 55-million-year old Tertiary siltstone.

     To those of us working in the area of nature conservation, the award of national geopark status has injected new impetus for the promotion of geological sites in Hong Kong. As those of you who have been working with the Hong Kong team in the past two years will notice, momentum has been building up fast. At this stage, we are already examining the possibility of seeking UNESCO geopark status for our geosites. While seeking global-level designation would be an important recognition of the value of our geosites, it will also bring a tremendous boost to our work in promoting our geopark to the local, as well as national and international, community. This will contribute not only to popularisation of the geopark among the people, but also the strengthening of research into geosites. Not to mention the tightening of the network of geopark operation and related activities around the world.

Communicating the Geopark to the Urbanites

Preaching to the "converted"

     As I mentioned earlier, our country parks boast an annual visitor figure of 12 million. This provides a good foundation in the preliminary stage of popularising the geopark. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong Government (AFCD) has the experience and expertise in managing, conserving and promoting our country park areas. Working with non-government organisations like the Friends of Country Park and the Association for Geoconservation in Hong Kong, the department can easily mobilise NGOs to disseminate information and knowledge about our geopark to nature lovers in Hong Kong through their networks.

     Within months of the announcement of the Government's plan to establish the geopark, there was great enthusiasm among the NGOs as well as the district communities where the geopark is situated. They spawned a wide range of suggestions on how the Government should take forward the project. Not all of them were taken on board, but the process has helped foster a healthy discussion in the community, hence raising public awareness of the topic.

Reaching out to the Community

     The core of our geopark project is to promote it to the public, who are otherwise not aware of the geoheritage of Hong Kong. From November last year to February this year, the AFCD organised over 200 free guided tours for members of the public to the geosites. The four months of intensive work took 14,000 people on five of our geo-trails. The response has been overwhelming. We have also rolled out a public science education programme targeting schools, with specially designed geotours for students. The Hong Kong National Geopark Visitor Centre came into operation in early December 2009, and two geological educational centres have also been established through collaboration with local communities and green groups. Another geo-education centre and a paleontology classroom are planned for 2010 to better engage local communities in the publicity and education initiatives of Hong Kong National Geopark. In the coming months, efforts will be devoted to the training of geo-guides. One of the truly unexpected take-aways from the project is that we found ourselves reaching out to groups and sectors of the community beyond our usual remit of nature conservation. These new stakeholders are:

(i)     fishermen groups who are keen to explore whether their fishing boats can be converted for use in conducting geo-tours. They saw the geo-park project as an opportunity for them to switch to a new business, an alternative means of making a living to the shrinking local fishing industry. We are working closely with them to provide the necessary training and guidance;

(ii)     publishers and media organisations who are keen to capture the growing interest among readers in the history, formation and appreciation of our geo-heritage. A series of special reports, publications and TV programmes have been produced.

     These small stories reveal an interesting phenomenon - a geopark is not confined to the select few who possess professional knowledge of geology. The success of a geopark project is determined by the ability to popularise its value for the enjoyment of the community at large and bringing about interest and advantage to those who would otherwise not be engaging in it. In the process, we must articulate the message in a language for the people. This is the most fundamental and important way to rally their support. So doing would require scientific and technical languages to be made simple rather than difficult, and messages to be crafted to engage rather than distance the public. It also requires efforts to build gateways rather than walls for a wider and more cohesive network of alliance.

Making it an Accessible "Park"

     Having discussed our outreach efforts, I would like to say a few words about the design of geoparks and their affiliated infrastructure, which goes a long way in determining whether it is approachable by the public. In deciding on the management model of the Hong Kong National Geopark, we have taken a conscious decision not to run it in the conventional scheme of a park. It is open to all and does not have designated entrances or opening and closing times. How to help visitors navigate through the geo features then became a challenge. We need an infrastructure that is handy, highly mobile and easy to understand: all are key concerns for local visitors and tourists alike, as they all travel within an extremely tight schedule, sparing very limited time for the long span of geo history. We found our answer in Information Technology. We have designed a speaking pen which can tell the geo-stories. To cater for the needs of different hikers, we have recorded a children's version, an adults' version and a professional visitors' guide. This summer, visitors on boat tours to our geosites will be the first users to try out these interesting tools.

     Apart from the guide, we have:

(i) rolled out an intensive advertising campaign to educate the public on the things to notice while visiting the geopark;

(ii) created a designated website on HK Geopark (; and

(iii) started a project to build eight geotrails with portal information boards and interpretation plates within the geopark area. The programme is expected to complete by the end of 2010.

     Ladies and gentlemen, the geosites are the heritage of mankind. In promoting our geoparks, it is of utmost importance that we bring them closer to the people through public engagement, education and facilitation. Much as it is about the local population, there is also an important dimension in communicating geoheritage across national boundaries. To this end, the sistering arrangements currently adopted by geoparks around the world is a useful model. The Hong Kong National Geopark has so far entered into four sistering agreements, namely with Yandangshan World Geopark in Mainland China, Itoigawa Global Geopark in Japan, English Riviera Geopark in the United Kingdom and Kanawinka Geopark in Australia. We look forward to fostering a closer dialogue as we seek to expand our sistering network and contribute to the communication of geoheritage in a global setting.

     Thank you.

Ends/Monday, April 12, 2010
Issued at HKT 17:39


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