Ark Eden in Lantau, a world-renowned environmental education resource
- Written by Jane Clyde, 1 April 2016
Ark Eden is becoming a world-renowned environmental education resource. Founder Jenny Quinton discusses 10 incredible years at the helm, and reveals what’s next. Jane Clyde reports.
“Children often ask me what Ark Eden means and I say, ‘It means Earth Rescue Vessel’,” founder Jenny Quinton opens. “It’s the idea of saving and restoring everything that is beautiful. When adults ask me I am a bit more longwinded and I say, ‘Ark Eden is dedicated to the ethics and principles of permaculture and restoring a connection and respect for the natural environment through practical educational programmes and restorative projects that provide sustainable local and global solutions’.”
Unless you’ve attended a permaculture course there or dropped your kids off for an eco-day, it is in fact quite difficult to envision what Ark Eden is really like. Importantly, it’s located in a secluded valley in the foothills of Mui Wo – far from the madding crowd. Activities are run between two restored farmhouses that are connected by gardens and fields. The surrounding hillsides have been planted with thousands of native trees.
“Our long-term goal has always been to try to preserve the island’s ecological, geographical, historical and cultural heritage by following a sustainable lifestyle and by providing inspiring educational and eco-tourism opportunities for children, adults, residents and tourists,” says Jenny. “Ark Eden presents Lantau as a living, world-class natural environmental wonder and suggests how its natural assets can be used to benefit education, local communities, Hong Kong residents and overseas visitors – all of us.”
What Jenny enjoys most about her work is making people happy. “Nature heals people,” she says. “Helping nature heal also makes people very happy. I love it when children don’t want to leave. I love watching the older students that we work with grow into caring, capable young people who go out there and make a difference. And I love watching adults embrace the need for a radically different lifestyle, focused on creating a truly sustainable future.”
Where it started
Jenny has lived in Lantau, in the same valley in fact, since she first moved to Hong Kong from the UK in 1989. “I stayed here because I fell in love with Lantau,” she says. “Lantau is not only an incredibly beautiful island but she has a huge spiritual heart. And things always keep happening or nearly happening to Lantau – airports, fires, roads, super-prisons, concept plans. So from when I first moved here I spent a lot of the time on the frontline trying to stop things happening, or repair things that had already happened, or just making a great big fuss to stop bad things happening again.”
Interestingly enough, Jenny’s wakeup call to environmental issues came when her house nearly burned down because of a hill fire caused by Grave-sweeping Festival visitors. “Actually my house nearly burned down four times over eight years,” she says with a smile. “The valley was then a ‘black valley’ – there were no trees. So I joined about four green groups, started planting trees and began madly creating an environmental curriculum in the English Schools Foundation (ESF) primary school where I worked.”
Jenny chaired the ESF Environment Group for nine years, and they still maintain close ties. She also continues to support local and regional green groups, including the Lantau Buffalo Association, Green Lantau Association and Living Islands Movement.
Environmental education resource
So where did the idea for Ark Eden come from? “In 2004, the terrible Lantau Concept (read Concrete) Plan was released and a group of us (Neil Mclaughlin, an architect, Paul Melsom, a horticulturalist and myself), who were sick of fighting government plans, got together and created an alternative plan for Lantau. We called it the Ark Eden Blueprint for Lantau,” Jenny explains. “Neil was sick with cancer and before he passed away, I promised, by accident really, that I would ‘do’ Ark Eden, not really knowing what ‘doing’ Ark Eden would mean.”
Three weeks after Neil’s death, Jenny resigned from her job. “This was not completely sensible as I was a single mum with two children, with very high school fees to pay,” she says. Regardless, Ark Eden was up and running in 2006, initially with an outdoor curriculum for students because that was what Jenny knew how to do.
“We farmed, planted trees and examined buffalo poo,” she says. “We cleaned beaches, made compost and visited beautiful places around Lantau. At the same time we took action – wrote lots of letters to the government – and learnt about sustainable solutions.”
Within a few years, community, religious and corporate groups started showing an interest in Ark Eden and its expansion began, with Jenny’s team organising the planting of more trees, restoring old buildings and doing more advocacy work. Over the years, the line-up of activities on offer has steadily increased, and it now includes permaculture courses, service projects, outdoor camps, conferences, eco days, nature connection and wellness workshops, work experience, corporate social responsibility projects and leadership training.
“Presently over 7,000 people of all ages engage in Ark Eden projects each year and we are most certainly growing,” Jenny says.
While adult programmes are readily available, educating children is Ark Eden’s main focus. During the school year, environmental workshops and eco-tours are offered for both local and international school students. And in the summer, it runs eco-adventure camps that are geared towards reconnecting children with the wild. Activities include hiking, swimming, climbing up river gorges and learning about the animals and plants on Lantau. Next year, Jenny plans to launch a series of large-scale, eco-service permaculture camps in order to educate thousands more children.
The Ark Eden Blueprint Plan for Lantau
Ark Eden celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and there’s a lot going on but not enough to satisfy Jenny. “I get frustrated that Ark Eden is doing too slowly what it was set up to do – save Lantau,” she says. “The problem sort of went away for a bit but now it is back due to the monster Lantau Development Plan. We have a long bridge and a proposed third airport runway to supposedly justify developing beautiful Lantau. But it makes no sense. Hong Kong is one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots, and Lantau is one of our last remaining places of wild beauty and important ecology. The plans for Lantau literally keep me awake at night.”
In permaculture the problem is seen as the solution, and with this in mind, Jenny says: “A coordinated alternative plan, that can also address the government’s intentions, is really needed to protect the island. We need more time! And we need the involvement of green groups, experts and the community – people who have a long-term vision beyond the realms of concrete and money. I know rewriting parts of the Ark Eden Blueprint for Lantau could be helpful for this plan. Let’s have more outdoor, low-impact, environmental education workshops for the thousands of students and adults presently entombed in Hong Kong.
“I think if we all share one important project in all of our lives then that is to raise capable people,” Jenny adds. “We have an opportunity to nurture our future generations, and act as an example to the rest of the world. We should do it.”
• Ark Eden, www.arkedenonlantau.com
• Green Lantau Association, https://greenlantau.org
• Lantau Buffalo Association, https://lantaubuffalo.wordpress.com
• Living Islands Movement, www.livingislands.org.hk