Tuesday, February 11, 2003

New lows in Cameron Highlands, environmental issues.

New lows in the highlands
Tuesday, February 11, 2003
By S.S. Yoga

IT’S the same old tune that has been played time and again. A sad song of wanton destruction of the environment, of illegal carving of the land for selfish gains, followed by the media splash and subsequent public outcry.

The authorities rush out from their offices to give statements and promise to do something; committees are formed and recommendations are made – it’s part of the dance ritual that accompanies the song. Then the song stops for a while and all is seemingly calm and under control. But not for long.

This time no less a person than the Prime Minister himself has decided that the song and dance routine must stop. Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad has spoken out strongly against the levelling of hills in Cameron Highlands, and has called for amendments to the law to include stiffer penalties, including a jail sentence, against those who flout environmental laws for profit.

Dr Mahathir was reacting to media reports of a farming project in Blue Valley, Cameron Highlands, where heavy machinery was used illegally to level a hill, leaving the slopes uncovered. This blatantly contravened regulations and guidelines on hill clearing.

The controversy was sparked off when Deng Seng Sdn Bhd, one of the seven companies involved in the 26ha project, defied two stop-work orders issued on Jan 13 and Jan 30. Subsequently the Cameron Highlands District Office lodged a police report against the contractor for illegally using heavy machinery to clear and develop a hill site, and not covering the slopes to prevent erosion.

K.C. Kwang & Sons Sdn Bhd director Kwang Keh Chong, one of the partners in the project, added fuel by saying that levelling the hill was the only option for his high-technology farming method using hydroponics. He also defended the use of bulldozers by saying that it was necessary to speed work up that had started two months earlier.

“With bulldozers we can clear the land within three to four months. If we use normal equipment it will take more than a year and there will be more erosion. Now we have new technology and equipment, we do new way lah,” Kwang adds.

Kwang claimed that he had, two months ago, submitted the project plan to the Land Office which he claimed knew that the land would be levelled and had issued the permit.

The site that is embroiled in controversy is in front of a 1.5ha farm where Kwang grows tomatoes using hydroponics.

“This was also a hill before and I flattened it,” says Kwang. “See, it looks good, not like the one in front because that is not completed yet. If we are allowed to continue, the site will look just as good. Behind is a forest reserve; I never touch it, I make sure it is protected.”

Both Kwang and his Dutch consultant Luuk Runia claim that, with the flattening of the site, they could push the soil into the centre of the valley created and this would check any soil run-offs. But it was previously reported that the contractor was caught allegedly dumping the soil into a nearby stream.

Kwang’s insistence that he was “not destroying the environment but protecting it” has raised the ire of NGOs.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) executive officer Andrew Sebastian dismissed Kwang’s claims as “ludicrous” and said the culprits concerned should be taken to task for contravening the law and jeopardising the environment.

The Society of Regional Awareness of Cameron Highlands (Reach) questioned why the heavy machinery used was not seized as the local council was empowered to do so, and why the contractors were only slapped with a fine of RM500 per machine.

Highland merry-go-round

In the midst of a public uproar, Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob announced on Feb 5 that all development projects in Cameron Highlands would be frozen until the laws were amended.

The following day Science, Technology and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Law Hieng Ding said a new permanent committee on the highlands would be formed under the Ministry. The committee would take over the duties from the Cabinet Committee on Highland and Island Development formed in 2000 to conduct assessments and issue guidelines.

In 2000 the older committee had started a year-long assessment on Cameron Highlands and came up with guidelines for all highland areas which were supposed to be enforced by the state governments through the local authorities.

During the assessment all 16 ongoing projects were frozen. Later five projects were given the go-ahead. No details were released on these five projects and why they were allowed to continue.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia executive director Datuk Dr Mikaail Kavanagh Abdullah points out that the public should be kept informed and consulted before approval is given for any development since they are the ones who would be affected.

Reach president Ramakrishnan Ramasamy says they have brought to the attention of the local authorities many problems facing the highlands. They have submitted many reports on illegal land clearing in Ringlet, Bertam Valley and Kuala Terla to the District Office but no action has been taken.

Then there is the local council’s project, Puncak Arabella at Robinson Falls in Tanah Rata, where landslides had occurred months after the district council said it was safe for occupation.

Robinson Falls, supposedly a tourist attraction, is dirty and strewn with rubbish.

It was Reach which blew the whistle on the goings-on in Blue Valley on Jan 29 and forced the authorities to act.

The latest controversy surrounding the Blue Valley has raised many questions, foremost of which perhaps is Kwang’s claims that he had a permit to clear the land. If that is true, what are the conditions attached to the permit? And what about the conversion of the land title for the project?

“This hydroponics project was part of the former Blue Valley tea estate which is under a tea estate land use title,” explains Ramakrishnan. “It was sold to a consortium of former workers who then resold it. If it is parcelled out it has to be converted to agricultural smallholdings title, otherwise the land would have been illegally used for agriculture.”

Once the freeze order was issued farmers were unsure if they were affected.

“The 5,000 farmers here are confused over the freeze order by the Pahang Mentri Besar,” says P. Viswanathan, president of the Cameron Highlands Indian Farmers Association. “Would the freeze mean that they are not allowed to work on new land for their farming projects? We have asked the District Officer for a list of the projects affected.”

It does not help that District Officer Haron Abdul Kader has not made any attempts to clear the air since the controversy erupted.

Hydro woes

The Blue Valley debacle has raised another interesting issue: is the hydroponics method of farming suitable for the highlands?

British botanist Dr Robert Butcher who is conducting research on vegetable pests in the Cameron Highlands asserts that hydroponics can be carried out on terraced plots, but it will be costlier.

Butcher points out that sterile water would be needed for the cultivation of tomatoes using hydroponics. Pesticides and herbicides would still need to be sprayed and the peat base used would have to be disposed of after one generation of crops.

And where would this base filled with harmful chemicals be dumped?

A quick survey among the farms reveals the indiscriminate dumping of used peat base near rivers and vacant plots of land, posing a potential hazard should the pesticides seep into the soil and rivers.

To compound the problem, there is some confusion on the issue of jurisdiction: for instance which department should regulate the disposal of agricultural wastes. There is even dispute as to whether the illegal clearing of land is a state or federal government concern.

“Time and time again the excuse is given that land is a state matter. There seems to be a lack of political will to do something,” laments Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) president S.M. Mohamed Idris.

SAM is hopeful in the wake of new developments and is offering its services to the new committee being formed.

Agricultural consultant Embi Abdullah, who is also a long-time resident of Cameron Highlands, suggests that the Agriculture Department set up a model farm so that the farmers will have a practical example to follow.

“The farmers should be taught how to prepare and farm the land in an environmentally-friendly way,” adds Embi.

There is much work to be done indeed and hopefully the changes will come soon enough before the stink – and it’s not from rotting vegetables – in the Cameron Highlands gets unbearable. -- The Star.

1) Farms near the Kea farm area in Brinchang, Cameron Highlands, carries out proper terracing.

2) A bulldozer clearing away mud and silt at the site of the local council's project, Puncak Arabella, at Robinson Falls at Tanah Rata.

3) Farming areas are perched precariously on the steep slopes between Kuala Terla and Kampung Raja.

4) After being used for hydroponic cultivation, the peat-based soil - filled with harmful chemicals - is dumped indiscriminately near rivers and vacant plots of land in the Blue Valley. This poses a potential hazard should the pesticides seep into the soil and rivers.