HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong farming villages bordering China's mainland are locked in a bitter struggle against property developers accused of "land hoarding", as resentment of the city's vast wealth gap fuels democracy protests.
While developers snap up valuable real estate across the city, soaring house prices and rental costs leave the majority of the population struggling to afford private housing. Farmers in the outlying New Territories near the mainland border are now joining the push back against the government and developers as their land comes under threat.
A multibillion dollar government project will see scarce agricultural land developed, and thousands uprooted to make way for townships that officials say will help to meet demand for housing.
But with only a tiny sliver of the proposed 614ha area reserved for public housing - and a bigger slice for commercial complexes as well as private flats beyond the reach of most Hong Kongers - villagers argue that the project is designed mainly to enrich real estate giants. "Ordinary people like me can only dream of affording the apartments that will be built here," said Mr Yung King Yu, a 19-year-old resident of Ma Shi Po, one of the affected villages. "So how will this project meet Hong Kong's housing needs?" asks Mr Yung, who regularly camps at one of the democracy protest sites.
Given the area's proximity to the border, the project has also spawned concerns that it will cater more to wealthy Chinese mainlanders, who are often blamed for driving up Hong Kong property prices.
Now in their second month, the protests were sparked by Beijing's insistence on vetting candidates in Hong Kong's next leadership elections in 2017 - but the perceived cosy relationship between the government and the city's powerful business elite is also a key source of anger.
Hemmed in by skyscrapers towering above tree-lined boulevards, Ma Shi Po is a patchwork of vegetable farms, fish ponds and sprawling pastel-coloured houses - a novelty in Hong Kong, where millions live in cramped apartments.
But there are also abandoned plots which developers have bought up over the years from local landlords, displacing scores of non-indigenous farmers who moved there generations ago but have no land rights, villagers say.
"Hundreds of farmers have had to leave the village because of this land hoarding," said 29-year-old Ms Becky Au Hei Man, who manages a community farm in the village.
"This is a kind of land hegemony," she said, strolling past a fenced plot now owned by Henderson Land Development and overrun by wild undergrowth.
Henderson, led by Hong Kong's third-richest man Lee Shau Kee, is a major land holder in Ma Shi Po, says Liber Research Community, a Hong Kong think-tank focused on urban planning.
Ms Au says her landlord has sold her patch of land to Henderson, but she refuses to leave.
The property giant declined to comment when contacted by AFP.
Besides Henderson, other land-owning developers in areas surrounding Ma Shi Po include billionaire Cheng Yu Tung's New World Development and Cheung Kong, led by Asia's richest man Li Ka Shing, Liber researcher Chan Kim Ching told AFP.
"Our research shows developers have been quietly stocking up land at low prices since the early 1990s - years before the government declared the project in 1998," said Chan.
Protesters angered by the government's "pro-developer policies" attempted to storm the city's Parliament in June after it hastily approved HK$340 million (S$56.6 million) in funding for the New Territories development project.
Hong Kong's development chief Paul Chan also came under fire after he admitted last year that his family owned vast tracts of land in the development zone.
He shrugged off calls for his resignation and denied any conflict of interest, saying the property had been transferred to his wife's relatives.
The rift between the farmers and developers is indicative of the growing disconnect between the city's privileged establishment and ordinary residents.
Hong Kong's official Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is among the highest in the world for developed economies and poorer citizens feel increasingly overlooked by the government.
The city's embattled leader Leung Chun Ying - who was handpicked by a pro-Beijing committee - provoked bewilderment recently when he spoke against fully free elections, saying they would result in the poor dominating politics.
At the other end of the scale, Hong Kong's 10 wealthiest tycoons control a combined fortune of around US$130 billion (S$167.6 billion) and all have interests in real estate, according to Forbes magazine.
But the "have-nots" are desperately trying to make their voices heard. Hong Kong's town planning board has received close to 50,000 public objections to the New Territories housing project, a historic high.
At one town planning meeting farmers delivered impassioned speeches, imploring officials to save their bitter melon and water spinach farms - a rich habitat for rare migratory birds and flowering plants.
"I wake up in the middle of the night crying," said one emotional farmer.
"I can't abandon my trees, my farm animals, my way of life to live in a skyscraper. This plan is not for me. It's for the rich."