Malaysia: ‘It will take RM1 billion to save Cameron Highlands’

New Straits Times 14 Nov 14;

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Saving Cameron Highlands will take at least a whopping RM1 billion.

Former Cameron Highlands member of parliament Datuk S.K. Devamany said the amount was needed to seize the vast plots of land which were being illegally cleared as well as for reforestation.

“Urgent rehabilitation is needed to save Cameron Highlands. Reorganising land use and ownership, reforestation and enforcement need a long-term action plan.

“It is not going to be easy but there is (still) hope if the Federal and state governments are committed to the cause,” he told the New Straits Times here yesterday.

Devamany, who was the MP between 2004 and May 2013, said his heart ached when he saw the massive destruction on the highlands.

“All the aerial photos taken by helicopters by the numerous agencies are so vivid.

“Back then (in parliament), I constantly lamented that Cameron Highlands was being raped repeatedly... look what has become of it now,” said the current Perak State Legislative Assembly Speaker, who until today, remains passionate about the subject.

During his tenure, Devamany had also conducted numerous researches on the impact of development on the Orang Asli community.

Besides the huge allocation,
Devamany proposed that a new act be passed in parliament for preservation of the highlands.

He said under a new act, special powers for land management
and enforcement must be enacted within Federal laws, adding that Federal intervention was vital at this stage.

“At present, land management and enforcement for the highlands is very much a state affair and the system is totally abused. There are too few officers enforcing a mountain of that magnitude. Corruption is rampant. There are a few ‘mafias’ controlling the highlands.

“During my tenure, (the Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands, or Reach, and I) had proposed for Federal powers for protection, preservation and enforcement.”

Cameron Highlands generates RM2 billion per annum. Some 30,000 tourists visit the highlands a week.

The NST reported yesterday that Cameron Highlands was headed for a catastrophe “of an unimaginable scale” in five to 10 years if illegal land clearing continued unabated.

It is estimated that about 6,000ha of land in Cameron Highlands were encroached by farmers for illegal land clearing.

Last Wednesday’s mud floods and landslides, which claimed five lives and injured four others, ripped through Bertam Valley, Ringlet and Kuala Terla.

Excessive land-clearing activities and unplanned development on the highlands have been blamed for the incident. Reporting by Audrey Dermawan

‘Yellow letters’ bane of Camerons

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: AS experts warn of the end of Cameron Highlands, authorities who could reverse the travesties in the hills have made a desperate cry for help.

Arguing their case against accusations that they had been closing one eye as the highlands continued to be ravaged by illegal land clearing, these law enforcers, who said they would have discharged their duties more effectively if they were allowed, want the cans of worms of the administration in Cameron Highlands to be ripped wide open.

They are willing to go to great lengths to expose the deeply entrenched multi-level corruption and abuse of power that had contributed to the extensive damage.

For starters, they made available to the New Straits Times an example of an all-powerful document, one of the root causes of environmental problems besieging the highlands.

This document is widely known among not only those in power but those tasked to execute it as surat kuning.

Letters like these are the very bane of enforcers, who had on many occasions, had them shoved in their faces, ultimately forcing them to authorise the land to be “legally” ravaged.

Such letters, which always come without a letterhead, would be addressed to the district officer (DO).

The copy given to the NST showed the sender, allegedly a senior official in the Pahang palace, specifying the exact tract of government land in Kampung Raja he had wanted the Cameron Highlands district office to approve for development.

Kampung Raja was one of the three main areas in Cameron Highlands that was hit by mudslides on Nov 5. It was also near this area that a 13-year-old died on that ill-fated night.

The official, with lineage to the Pahang royal house, said in the letter, “the administration had received an appeal from an applicant to develop a 0.277ha of land and that the businessman would build 16 units of storage (for produce) and that the latter had submitted his application for the purpose.

“... Your (the district officer’s) co-operation and kind assistance in giving this request special consideration is sought and duly approved,” he said before signing off with his royal titles.

The NST has learnt that the issuance of new Temporary Occupation Licences had been frozen since 2001.

Meanwhile, the Pahang palace through an official, said they would not comment on the Cameron Highlands issue and that they would leave it to the state government to handle.

A former DO who served in the highlands “confessed” that all letters pertaining to land matters were kept in a “confidential file” in the DO’s office.

“Only the DO and his secretary have access to the documents,” he said, adding only the DO had the authority to approve such letters.

Another former Cameron Highlands DO said not all surat kuning he received during his tenure in the highlands were from the palace.

“When I receive them, I will check their authenticity with my connections in the palace, including the secretary.

“I verify who exactly the letters were from. However, I don’t usually entertain such letters and had never received any threats for sitting on them,” he said, adding that other district officers had also received these surat kuning.

Meanwhile, authorities looking at plugging the problem of land clearing in the highlands said many farmers considered the land that they had been cultivating as their “god-given right”.

“Say, for instance, the father was given a hectare. When the son joins the business, they will illegally develop the surrounding land areas, ultimately expanding their farms.

“That is why we are seeing farms that cover buffer zones and those that even dip into rivers.

“These irresponsible and greedy parties do everything they can to minimise their costs to rake in high profits. You see them dumping farm waste into the river,” one exasperated officer said.

Meanwhile, those probing the shenanigans going on in Cameron Highlands said there were only a handful of individuals said to have links with the palace that had been exerting their so-called power.

“The sultan has nothing to do with this... In many cases, the good name of the palace is dropped in the hopes authorities would keep a safe distance out of fear or respect,” one source said.

Another set of sources said the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission had, since 14 years ago, been pushing for various enforcement agencies and local councils to stop illegal land clearing in the highlands.

“They were told to do joint operations, share logistics and intelligence information, and work with the graft busters.

“They did carry out enforcement but it was short-lived and before you knew it, not only were these farmers back in business, they were more aggressive.

“They have brought in more illegal workers into their farms to push up production.

“The problems they have created are manifested in the kind of carnage we are seeing in Cameron Highlands,” they said.

The NST was told that the MACC had led more than 100 joint operations since 2000.

While the law enforcers entrusted with preserving the highlands cited “interference” for their inaction, to the MACC, the enforcers were not serious in arresting the problem.

“Their hands are not entirely tied. The authorities can enforce the law if they wanted to. So what if they are transferred for going against the grain? If everyone of them stood their ground, how many transfers can be forced?

“There are just too few of the good ones but lots of bad apples who are in cahoots with these greedy farmers.

“What have they done in the past 14 years? Look at the farms mushrooming on steep hills and river reserves, even first-timers to the pristine highlands will know these are illegal sites. What are they doing?” the sources asked.

Their assessment is supposedly shared by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim (he also oversees the National Security Council), who was reportedly miffed by the excuses that the law enforcers gave, that they were forced to bow to certain quarters and feared repercussions, including by syndicates.

An enforcement officer who attended a meeting on the Cameron Highlands issue in Putrajaya last week spoke of how Shahidan
sarcastically told a group of media personnel to feel free to bring backhoes to Cameron Highlands as the law enforcers there were “scaredy-cats”.

“The lax enforcement has resulted in farmers to be more daring in opening up larger, newer sites and this has resulted in dwindling forest reserves in the highlands,” said the sources.

“Weak enforcement had made them bolder in unleashing their illegal workers to carry out illegal farming, especially during the weekends and public holidays.

“You know that they operate on these days ... Yet, you don’t rotate your roster to ensure there is no room for this to happen,” they said.

The sources pointed out one fact — that some of the agencies involved were even equipped with the right equipment, including satellite monitoring systems, for effective enforcement.

“They must have detected illegally opened areas that are bald and barren, and could have done something about it... But they choose not to.”

The highlands have seen recurring disasters over the years with the latest on Nov 5, where five perished in landslides.

An operation in the highlands involving all relevant agencies, including the armed forces, is ongoing.

Now, in its sixth day, the main focus appears to be the hunt for illegal immigrants.

Premises where they had been employed have remained closed, with many of them believed to
be hiding in the surrounding jungles.

“For as long as the operations are going on, they will not come out. This is the first time in my 10 years here that I am seeing a major operation against illegal foreign workers,” said one of the law enforcers.

“I strongly hope by the time the enforcers leave this place the foreign workers won’t be back.” Additional Reporting by Tharanya Arumugam

Development plan ignored
New Straits Times 15 Nov 14;

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: AUTHORITIES believe there are no less than 6,000 hectares of illegally-cleared land here, three times more than stated under a comprehensive development plan for the highlands issued in 2003.

The plan had promised sustainable use of land, allowing agricultural activities to be carried out under a Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL).

The huge extent of illegal clearing was blamed on licence holders who blatantly expand their farms beyond the permitted acreage. The authorities and environmentalists are talking about ravaged hills that had expanded beyond the size of Putrajaya. They include forest reserves.

“Imagine the football pitch in Bukit Jalil Stadium, then imagine 8.4 million of them put together. That is the size of the land encroached on by greedy farmers in the highlands. It is hard to imagine,” said an official involved in investigating the root causes of the environmental problems besieging the highlands.

He, like many others the New Straits Times had engaged in probing into the goings-on in the administration of the highlands, was not sure if the development plan, which was supposed to last until next year, had even been observed.

Malaysian Institute of Integrity president Datuk Dr Mohd Tap Salleh agreed with the NST that if there was going to be any seriousness in arresting the on-going encroachment problem in the highlands, a thorough audit of the highlands’ administration, including the issuance of farming permits, must be quickly carried out.

“Action must be taken against officers who issued TOLs on prohibited areas, regardless of whether they did so under duress or not. There is the 2003-2015 Cameron Highlands Local Plan, so those checking on what has been going on can refer to it to see how TOLs are given,” Tap said.

The NST yesterday front-paged an expose on interference in the administration of the highlands by influential figures, including those using the Pahang palace’s name to push recommendations for land development.

It revealed a highly-confidential document known in the highlands’ business circle as a surat kuning. The NST yesterday tried to get palace officials to comment but they refused.

However, in the evening, Pahang Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob, issued a statement to the NST. He agreed with the NST’s suggestion that the state should have an auditing system to cross-check the development of land against what was set in the highlands’ development plan.

“We have the local plans in every district council, in which areas of land categories used are identified and marked. All development programmes need to tally with these plans. Perhaps with the auditing system as suggested, we can improve further.”

He, however, denied that the surat kuning from palace officials was among the root causes of problems in Cameron Highlands.

“This is not true and it’s not fair to the officials. It’s normal for many applicants to get testimonials and recommendations from whom they think can lend support to their applications. The palace officials are merely doing their duty just like a state assemblyman or penghulu (village headmen).

“Testimonials and recommendations from all, including palace officials, are looked into but in the end, the state authorities will decide based on merit,” Adnan said, adding that as menteri besar, he would ensure that all decisions made were fair.

He blamed the influx of illegal foreign workers here as the root cause of destruction as illegal farming would become rampant with a massive presence of these workers.

“Illegal cultivation has become rampant due to the availability of cheap foreign labour. The state has no means to curb this widespread illegal cultivation as it lacks the manpower and facilities to do it,” he said, adding that he welcomed fair reporting, saying it was the state government’s policy to be open and transparent.

“I welcome constructive criticism that can help the state improve and enhance the efficiency of its government machinery.”

However, Adnan found it hard to believe claims that there were 30,000 illegal immigrants here, saying that the number had been “excessively bloated” as operations to nab them had so far only netted 190.

Based on Immigration Department records, he said there were 11,016 legal immigrants here.

The NST was told by enforcers that they believed many illegal immigrants had gone into hiding in the surrounding jungles, waiting for the crackdown against them to wind down.

Meanwhile, the cabinet yesterday agreed to form a joint committee to oversee the implementation of short- and long-term rehabilitation plans for Cameron Highlands.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the committee would be jointly chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Adnan.

“The committee will be responsible for preparing an action plan to rehabilitate the highlands,” said Najib after opening the 2014 Umno Johor Convention in Johor Baru.

The NST had, in its report, also quoted experts as saying that the highlands here was headed for a catastrophe “of an unimaginable scale” in five to 10 years time if illegal land clearing continues unabated.

Environmental group Permata Greenland said the Pahang government must act decisively in revoking TOLs issued to farmers who breached their licence conditions, including those going beyond the permitted acreage in cultivating their land.

“They don’t respect the government’s terms and conditions, and are ungrateful and greedy. The damage they cause will take years to reverse,” said its deputy president, Dr Sharifah Mazlina Syed Abdul Kadir.

She added that the land must then be swiftly rehabilitated and reforestation works be carried out.

The extensive environmental damage to the highlands had been blamed for the carnage seen in recent years. The latest, on Nov 5, claimed five lives and injured four others when mudslides ripped through Bertam Valley, Ringlet and Kuala Terla.

An audit by the Auditor-General carried out two years ago showed that 991.4ha of areas bordering TOL lands had been illegally encroached. This acreage audited involved just three areas — Ulu Tenom, Ringlet and Tanah Rata.

Auditors had also concluded then that the overall management of highland development activities and its impact to the environment were “less than satisfactory” due to the lack of proper preservation of hill slopes, which had led to serious siltation in Tasik Ringlet.

It also mentioned farms that encroached into forest reserves in the area. The size of Cameron Highlands is 77,100ha, of which 6,000ha of it had been cleared illegally. The economy here generates about RM2 billion per annum. Some 30,000 tourists visit the highlands in a week.