Malaysia: Cameron Highlands in terrible shape due to land clearing and water pollution

Isabelle Lai The Star 11 Dec 12;

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Once famed for its cool temperatures and verdant growth, Cameron Highlands is now battling unsustainable land clearing and water pollution.

Rampant land clearing for agricultural cultivation riddles the hills, carried out by farmers who either do not have a permit or are flouting regulations.

Heavy machinery are also seen working during the weekends, when their use is prohibited.

Some of the land clearing is being done on hillslopes, which are clearly “class three” or “four”, meaning those above the 30-degree gradient. This poses high risks of landslides and soil erosion.

When it rains, especially during the current inter-monsoon season, muddy water gushes down the slopes into rivers which have turned a murky teh tarik colour.

Some of the clogged drains and streams have already begun overflowing each time it rains, flooding the roads nearby.

The situation is compounded by huge stretches of farms being covered with white, plastic sheets, causing rainwater to travel swiftly into the rivers without being “filtered” through the ground.

Soil erosion is not the only cause of river pollution at the hills; pesticides used at the farms are also washed into the once pristine rivers.

The Star visited several locations, including Sg Menson, 49 Mile, Blue Valley and Kuala Terla, all of which were suffering from extensive land clearing.

There was little or no evidence of any effort by farmers to create a proper drainage system, including setting up silt traps to prevent soil from washing into the rivers or streams.

Many farmers have also neglected to follow the requirement of maintaining a buffer zone between their farms and the rivers.

A drive along the inner road at Sg Menson showed kilometres of farms bordering the polluted river with no buffer zone.

At another area in Sg Menson, gully erosion has already taken place with hectares of land having been steadily cleared.

From the deep cracks and chasms in the ground, it is clear that tonnes of soil have been washed down the steep slopes into the river.

At 49 Mile, farmers have voiced opposition to the illegal land clearing by others who have polluted their only source of water.

Near Blue Valley, workers' quarters have been built near the main road, where toilet sewage pipes empty waste into the river.

The situation is similar in Ringlet, where a farmhand reported frequent skin problems or respiratory diseases as he and his workmates had to drink and cook with water from the same river.

Residents in Tanah Rata have expressed unhappiness over what they deem “rampant illegal clearing”, claiming that it has affected their health as well as jeopardised the future of Cameron Highlands as an agricultural area and a tourist destination.

Last month, massive soil erosion from an allegedly illegal land clearing near the Kuala Terla water treatment plant caused the only access road to the plant and the farms to give way after heavy rainfall.

A landslide also occurred the same day on the Tanah Rata-Ringlet road, causing a one-and-a-half hour traffic jam in both directions.

Illegal land clearing fouls water source for 13 farms in Cameron Highlands
The Star 11 Dec 12;

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Farmer S. Surender is more than happy to serve his guests a glass of thick, brown teh tarik that is, if they do not mind drinking heavily muddied water.

His farm in 49 Mile is among 13 farms here where the water supply has been polluted by illegal clearing by another farmer.

Outraged, the affected farmers have lodged two police reports against the errant farmer.

Land Office enforcement officers have since ordered the land clearing to stop.

But a site visit by The Star showed that workers were still busy preparing the cleared land at the top of the hill for agricultural cultivation.

A further site deeper into the jungle shows another large area, possibly around 8ha, that has also been cleared, which could potentially affect the second water pond used by the farmers.

The son of the farmer involved in the illegal land clearing claimed they had a permit from the Land Office. However, he was unable to produce it.

“We have a permit but I don't know how we obtained it. That was handled by my father. I haven't seen it. We already told the Land Office people that we will fix the water pollution problem by making a new pond and installing pipes,” said K. Jeyagobi, 35.

He also claimed that the problem with the authorities had been settled.

He insisted that the water pollution was due to the current rainy season and denied that the further clearing of the hill had been done by his farm.

Surender, meanwhile, said he and other affected farmers had to depend on nearby farms for their drinking water as their only source of clean water had been polluted since mid-November.

“My workers are complaining that they are suffering from diarrhoea and other problems from drinking the polluted water. They have no choice and I can't afford to buy mineral water for them every day,” he said.

Farmer K. Selvarajah, 44, said they had demanded to see the permit or licence but had received evasive replies.

“No one is supposed to clear more land here. The authorities have frozen the permits but these people are still doing it. What is happening to Cameron Highlands?” he said.

Fellow farmer Jaow Au Au, 56, agreed there were many farmers who flouted the laws including by using illegal pesticides and irresponsibly channelling their farm waste to the rivers.

“The pesticide, the human or animal waste, it all goes into the river and travels downstream. Is it any wonder people fall sick?” he said.

TOL freeze blamed for illegal clearing
The Star 11 Dec 12;

PETALING JAYA: Some farmers take the risk to clear land illegally in Cameron Highlands to open up new agriculture farms as no new temporary occupation licences (TOL) are being issued for development in the highlands.

Federation of Malaysian Vegetable Growers Association said the issuance of new TOLs for land cultivation in Cameron Highlands had been frozen so there was no chance for new farmers to apply.

“So, some take risks to make a living,” said its secretary-general Chay Ee Mong yesterday.

He declined to comment when asked why vegetable growing was becoming lucrative, especially in the area.

Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob had said that no new TOL would be issued in the Cameron Highlands.

‘Uphill task to ensure farmers do what’s right’
The Star 11 Dec 12;

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: A combination of difficult terrain and farmers' attitudes has led to rampant land clearing in Cameron Highlands, says district officer Datuk Ahmad Daud.

He admitted that although enforcement had been carried out frequently, the officers were hindered by the time taken to drive along the steep inner roads, which turn muddy and impassable whenever it rained.

“For example, I have to take two hours to reach Sg Menson in a four-wheel drive,” he said.

He added that he would “try his best” to combat the problem.

On the farmers, Ahmad claimed that some of them went ahead with illegal land clearing activities despite being told not to by the enforcers.

He also said pollution to the rivers here was a major problem during the rainy season.

Ahmad said the Land Office was working with the district Drainage and Irrigation Department on a campaign to educate farmers on disposing their farm waste responsibly.

He said the farmers were responsible for creating a buffer zone between their farms and the rivers, although many had ignored this.

“We will try our best to persuade them,” he said.

“That's the only way I cannot force them.”

'Land grab' by Cameron Highlands farmers
Govt has refused to issue new licences, to protect the environment
Lester Kong Straits Times 22 Dec 12;

CAMERON HIGHLANDS (Pahang) - The Malaysian government's refusal to issue new land licences to farms in an effort to prevent further damage to the environment has ironically resulted in farmers clearing land illegally to enlarge their vegetable and fruit farms.

Cameron Highlands, originally gazetted for tea, fruit and vegetable plantations, has become a major tourism attraction known for its cool climate, hotels and fresh grocers.

But farmers literally have had no room to grow here since the Pahang state government stopped issuing temporary operating licences in the 1990s in response to environmental concerns.

As a result, many farms have been inching into state land, causing landslides and silt to flow into the region's 126 rivers.

Mr Chay Ee Mong, secretary of the Cameron Highlands Vegetable Growers Association, said only 1,620ha out of 4,850ha of farms here cultivated vegetables. Tea plantations take up 2,420ha, while the rest are for growing flowers.

"We need an extra 3,000 acres (1,200ha) for vegetables, but I think this figure will be impossible to obtain," he told The Straits Times.

Vegetables from the Cameron Highlands are harvested year round and in high demand by Singaporeans as it only takes an overnight lorry trip to reach stores in Singapore, Mr Chay says.

But without new licences, farmers cannot expand their farm sizes, said Mr Kwang Keh Chong, 72, who owns a 17ha vegetable farm here.

Furthermore, banks will not lend them the money they need to modernise their farms for higher yields because of the risk that the land could be reclaimed by the government at any time.

As an established farmer who exports a third of his 1,000-tonne monthly produce to Singapore's NTUC FairPrice alone, Mr Kwang can afford expensive farming equipment that has helped his business. He is the only Cameron Highlands farmer with a RM600,000 (S$240,000) tomato sorting machine.

"How will small farmers be able to afford equipment like this?" he asked during a tour of his farm in Kampung Raja, a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Attempts to contact Cameron Highlands district officer Ahmad Daud for comment have not been answered. But in a report by The Star last week, Datuk Ahmad was quoted as saying his office was cooperating with the Drainage and Irrigation Department to teach farmers how to create buffer zones between their farms and rivers. But he added that enforcement is difficult because of muddy roads leading to remote farms that take hours to reach.

There are no official figures on how much land has been illegally cleared but the Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands group said it is "substantial".

Mr Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, the group's chief, said a lot of government and non-government effort has been spent teaching farmers high-yield farming techniques that allow them to sustain farming without needing to expand it, but these have fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Kwang said he sympathises with his fellow farmers in the Cameron Highlands, who only hold 0.8-1.2ha on average and said the costs involved in adopting such practices were too high for them. He believes a minimum of 2ha is needed for them to make a comfortable living with profits to save for expansion or buy better farming equipment.