Malaysia: On a mission for a greener Camerons

FERNANDO FONG New Straits Times 7 May 17;

Nature lover Ramakrishnan Ramasamy’s goal to save Cameron Highlands is filled with challenges. As the president of the non-governmental organisation, Regional Environment Awareness Cameron Highlands, he faces constant threats from those who want him to back down.

FOR Brinchang boy Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, life is inextricably intertwined with an uphill battle to save Cameron Highlands from environmental degradation.

The third child of four siblings, his love for nature started when he was young, having been a Boy Scout and later a King’s Scout — the top grade and honour in scout training.

He is an avid mountaineer, and was part of the expedition which saw the first Malaysian mountain climber, Datuk M. Magendran, conquering Mount Everest in 1997.

Ramakrishnan, who runs his own business supplying groceries and cooking gas to residents and businesses, also leads the local chapter of the Malaysian Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association (MVFRA) in Cameron Highlands.

But to the public, he is known as the president of the non-governmental organisation, Regional Environment Awareness Cameron Highlands (Reach), since 2000.

This is his story:

“I could not bear to see Cameron Highlands in shambles.

“The region is still reeling from negative environmental impact from unsustainable farming practices and commercial over-development.

“These actions have resulted in a host of problems, from falling ground temperatures to landslides, dying rivers, traffic jams, littering and polluting of the water supply.

“Disorder was the order of the day. This was not the Cameron Highlands we all know.

“Reach was established in 1999 at the suggestion of the Malaysia Nature Society and WWF Malaysia.

“I was made the president the following year and have been leading the organisation ever since.

“At that time, the public didn’t care about the woes besetting the natural environment in Cameron Highlands.

“Despite the economic growth spurred by tourism and agriculture, the local community seemed to have become more self-centred on their material needs and ignorant of the needs of Mother Nature.

“So, I turned to the media to try to turn things around. I speak out in my capacity as Reach president.

“Over the years, I have enjoyed a cordial relationship with the press, including TV3 personality Datuk Karam Singh Walia, who is famous for his environmental exposes.

“One of the first issues we raised was about water shortages in Cameron Highlands.

“We then moved on to highlight other problems such as corruption, illegal forest clearing, unsustainable farming practices, water pollution, the influx of illegal migrant workers and the need for reforestation.

“My crusade for a greener environment inevitably incurred hatred and enemies from among those with vested interests in the rapidly growing agricultural activities and commercialisation of Cameron Highlands.

“On many occasions, there were unknown individuals who issued warnings and even death threats to me.

“They wanted me to stop speaking out against issues that plagued Cameron Highlands.

“There’s too much at stake here.

“People have been far too engrossed, for a long time, in amassing wealth regardless of the environmental consequences.

“The laws are there, but there is lack of enforcement on the ground.

“Despite the threats, I remain steadfast in my mission.

“I even had to change my mobile phone number a few times because of constant harassment. Even my vehicle had been vandalised on several occasions.

“In 2003, we gained another milestone with the setting up of a biodiversity centre in Gunung Brinchang to promote and support the teaching of environment and science topics.

“We work with schools, universities, the corporate sector and also the local community to learn and engage in biodiversity.

“Down the road, Reach continues working on new ideas such as recycling programmes and the publication of books on the flora and fauna in Cameron Highlands.

“A great deal of our work relies on working closely with the locals as they are the eyes and ears for effective monitoring of all that is happening in Cameron Highlands.

“At times, we got so much information from them — some of which are damaging to the reputation of local agencies and town councils — that I was accused of having moles planted.

“As the president, I’m aware of my responsibility to make the correct statement based only on facts.

“Due to my outspoken nature, I have been asked to join a political party.

“However, I declined because this has never been part of my goals.

“I am well aware that despite my constant struggle in championing the environment, Cameron Highlands will not be able to return to how it was.

“But I hope, at the very least, we have done our part in outlining the steps for the future generations to undertake as we define and build the culture of quality tourism.

“Even if we can get more people who want to save Cameron Highlands to come on board, our mission is already a success.”

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