When 12 settlement (land) officers were transferred out from the Cameron Highlands Land Office recently, many locals breathed a sigh of relief. This was perhaps the first concrete move the government has made to tackle corruption up here. From the ‘file hantus' to the ‘permit layang' residents here have had enough. If one has money, anything is possible in Cameron Highlands including:
1. Building farms in water catchment areas
2. Clearing large swathes of forest even on slopes of gradients 3 and 4 when officially no more land clearing permits are supposed to be issued for these slopes and subsequently subdividing this cleared land into smaller lots and selling them complete with Temporary Occupation Licences.
3. Doing piling right in the middle of rivers to build shop-houses by the rivers,
4. Clearing whole hills in the centre of town and so on.
When TV3 came to highlight the rampant land clearing in Cameron Highlands two weeks back, they found not one but 20 tractors clearing the virgin highland forests in Bertam Valley. During this same period, there were also tractors working simultaneously in Kampung Raja, Tringkap and Kuala Terla.
When a top local government official was asked about this, he pleaded ignorance and said ‘tindakan akan di ambil' (action will be taken). How can one feign ignorance when all this has been happening in one's turf for the past five years? How can one say ‘tindakan akan diambil' when the day after TV3 had left, the tractors promptly went right back to work?
No ‘tindakan diambil' for the majority of these projects ‘hingga hari ini'. True, a couple of illegal structures were demolished, some foreign workers caught but the bulk of the land clearing continues unabated. Tractors confiscated are released the very next day. The only difference is that now the tractors are working at a more frantic pace in case the media turns up again.
The culprits are flaunting the law right under the authorities' noses and it has become very clear that officers have been paid to look the other way. Money has changed hands - lots and lots of money. Till today no ‘big bosses' have been apprehended.
Land-clearing is so massive that they have now encroached onto Orang Asli villages on the outskirts of towns, literally right up to their doorsteps. From Pos Trisu to Pos Telanok, from Pos Menson to Pos Lemoi, no Orang Asli village is spared. Their water and food sources are affected and water-borne diseases and malnutrition are now very common.
Where are the local leaders? Where are our elected representatives? Please don't turn up at Orang Asli villages only during election time just to canvass for their votes. Don't forsake the very people who got you into office not once but twice.
Since Cameron Highlands is also the head water-catchment area for Sungai Pahang in the East and Sungai Perak in the West, the effects of land clearing in Bertam Valley on the eastern slopes of Cameron Highlands is beginning to show in the neighbouring districts of Kuala Lipis and Raub. Muddy water is flowing into Sungai Koyan. This toxic brew draining into Cameron Highlands tributaries will end up in Sungai Pahang which will eventually reach Pekan.
So not only will the residents of Cameron Highlands be subjected to chronic poisoning form pesticides, but the people staying along Sungai Pahang will also be exposed to it. The sediments and silt from these earthworks will also raise the river beds and lead to flooding along Sungai Pahang.
When the encroachment of more than 60 farms on the water catchment are of Sungai Terla (main water source of Cameron Highlands) was highlighted in November 2009 by the local media, the Pahang menteri besar promised on national TV that ‘tindakan akan diambil dan air di Cameron Highlands masih selamat untuk diminum'. However, six months have passed and the only action that has been taken is the demolishment of two farms that drain directly into the intake point. Now these two farms are up again.
So this is more ‘wayang' (shadow play). Apparently the other farms responsible have been given notice to move a few meters away form the river's edge to provide a ‘win-win situation' but is this enough? The farms are still in the water catchment areas. DDT is still present in the sediment in the intake pond. The streams draining into this intake pond are devoid of life. The streams are dead. Does it not speak volumes of the toxicity of our water supply?
And you call this ‘selamat untuk diminum'. Why is our menteri besar not taking serious steps to alleviate this problem? What will happen to the children of Cameron Highlands if they are subjected to all these toxins from the drinking water for long periods of time?
To the visitor traveling from Simpang Pulai to Cameron Highlands, the scenery is most beautiful until you reach the Pahang border. Two kilometers into the border and the land clearing becomes visible from the roads. You will see farms on the sides of roads, on hill slopes and lately on hill and mountain tops. There is nothing wrong with farms if they are well-planned and located on land suitable for farming. But these are not and eventually with most of the forest cover gone, our current water shortages will be compounded.
If you are staying in resorts in Tanah Rata, you will be fairly cushioned from all this but take a leisure walk towards the once picturesque Orang Asli village of Sungai Ruil near the golf course and the true picture of Cameron Highlands emerges.
Besides all this, there are the ‘gerai'(stalls). There are even ‘gerai' on top of the towns' septic tanks, permanent ‘gerai' in car-parks, ‘gerai' over monsoon drains etc. This has led to a serious lack of parking spaces resulting in traffic jams during holidays that can even rival KL's jams.
Other illegal structures are also sprouting all over Camerons Highlands. In Brinchang, holiday bungalows without a proper CF and foundationa are erected by the slopes (visible from the Brinchang wet market). Restaurants and strawberry nurseries can appear literally overnight.
If ever there was a town where corruption is running wild, Cameron Highlands takes the cake. If the anti-corruption body were to dig a little harder, they won't be disappointed. We urge Prime Minister Najib Razak to help save Cameron Highlands from the evils of corruption.
Meanwhile our beautiful forests continue to dwindle. And the ‘wayang' continues to play.
The writer is president of Reach (Regional Environmental Awareness for Cameron Highlands.