The Turning Point

15 th March 2015

Cameron Highlands has never been in such a state of turmoil before. The environment here has been taking a beating for years and Camerons is plunging into this abyss of destruction. All the cries we made before have fallen on deaf ears. Finally the rivers screamed, and their hollers were loud enough for Putrajaya to hear.

On the 23rd October 2013, emergency release of water from the Sultan Abu Bakar dam after heavy rains caused mud floods in Bertam Valley. It resulted in 4 deaths and more than 100 homes and vehicles destroyed.

On the 5th of November 2014, a heavy downpour preceded by days of continuous rains caused the Sungai Ringlet to overflow its banks resulting in damage to homes and vehicles. Many other areas were also affected that night. There were numerous landslips in the farming areas in Bertam Valley, Kampung Raja,Kuala Terla, 49 Mile, Tringkap ,Manson Valley and Kea Farm. A total of 5 people were killed and damage to property included homes, packing houses, storage areas, bridges, roads, farm harvest and equipment.

bertam 6 nov schoolbertam 6 nov school 1

Bertam Valley being at the bottom of the “river” chain was again badly affected and even though water (muddy of course) was released in a more controlled manner the damage was extensive.

It became clear to all that the mud floods in Cameron Highlands will recur at an increasing frequency if nothing drastic is done to protect the environment. The iconic image of the Sultan Abu Bakar dam in all its muddy glory, with its contents held up only by this tiny sluice-gate and the image of the Bertam primary school ( SJKC  Bertam) yet again surrounded by raging mudwaters seemed to capture one’s imagination.

habu dam bertam valley 9 dec 2013 labelledbertam school 6nov14 2nd

The media went berserk. For more than 2 weeks  the papers were inundated with images of vegetable farms with the ubiquitous plastic rain shelters ,barren land,shaved hills and landslides. Malaysians were treated to screaming headlines of corruption, yellow letters, bribes, TOLs and football fields of illegal cleared land. Perhaps it is fated that it coincided with the ruling party’s general assembly where delegates including those in power, could hardly miss the daily dose of Cameron Highlands news and critical editorials in the major papers .

Putrajaya  had enough.

10th November 2014  The Star – Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin DPM announced that the Government has launched a massive crackdown on those responsible for the illegal land clearing activities after chairing an emergency meeting on  Cameron Highlands disaster  at the National Security Council. The government has also launched a massive exercise to arrest illegal immigrants and it involved the Police, Immigration Department, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission MACC, the police’s General Operations Force and the Military. DPM also said that although land clearing activities fell under the jurisdiction of the Pahang State government, the Federal Government has ordered the state to enforce the law wholly and strictly.

11th November 2014 NST- the Pahang Government admitted that it had not done enough to stop the influx of illegal immigrants and catch the culprits responsible for illegal land clearing here.

14th November 2014 –Prime Minister  Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that the Cabinet has approved 2 plans of action to rehabilitate Cameron Highlands. For the 1st  plan the Cabinet authorised DPM and the Menteri Besar of Pahang Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob to form a committee to  handle this. The 2nd plan involved getting relevant agencies to strictly enforce the laws which so far has been seriously lacking.

16th November 2014 NST-The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry revealed that it had shared satellite images of illegal land clearing with state level enforcers in Pahang but was ignored.

17th November 2014-The Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Datuk Seri G.Palanivel announced that 1 million trees will be planted in the greening of Cameron Highlands. The Ministry will work with 4 NGOs (non governmental agencies) namely REACH  (Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands, MNS ( Malaysia Nature Society ) PEKA ( Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia) and KUASA( Kumpulan Activis Sahabat Alam)

By now the military and police presence in Cameron Highlands were increasing. Road blocks were set up at the main entry points. The heightened tension in town was almost palpable especially amongst  those who employed illegal immigrants and the illegal immigrants themselves. The locals took in all these news with a huge dose of skeptism. Many illegal immigrants too decided to ride it out because from past experience the enforcements do not last. In the far corners of Camerons land clearing continued.

24th November 2014-From early morning there was an air of anticipation as the DPM would be chairing a meeting with the Special Committee on Flash Floods in Cameron Highlands. Helicopters have been buzzing overhead, police and army vehicles were everywhere and dark tinted important looking vehicles could not be missed. 10 ministers would be arriving and they included the Menteri Besar of Pahang, the Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister, Human Resources Minister, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, The Menteri Besar of Perak. Also present were Inspector General of Police , Armed Forces Chief ,Attorney General and Civil Defence Director General.

At the press conference after the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin  announced that the aspirations of the Special Committee on Flash Floods in Cameron Highlands was to restore Cameron Highlands to its former glory as one of the country’s top tourists destination. It covers short, medium and long term measures and includes a 7 point plan .

  1. The local plan will be reviewed to ensure that it is in tandem with the aspirations of the Special Committee
  2. The data on illegal foreign workers  in the highlands will be collected
  3. There would be continuous enforcement by the various agencies in the highlands to ensure that the issue of illegal immigrants is effectively addressed

Measures to preserve the Highlands acreage

  1. Need to permanently freeze the issuance of Temporary Occupation Licences (TOL) under consideration
  2. Developments on slopes with a gradient of 20 degrees would be monitored closely.
  3. The committee would look into the viability of opening up new areas for farming.
  4. The committee would also look into how the Federal Government could assist the state government in providing manpower and funding to carry out enforcement.

Muhyiddin said that under Cameron Highlands Local Plan only 2300 ha are suitable for farming but remote sensing imagery showed that almost 8600 ha have been cleared. This means severe encroachment has been going on and stricter enforcement is needed. A one stop centre would be set up to coordinate the enforcement work. The work would stop when the government was confident that issues plaguing the highlands were resolved and would not recur.

25th November 2014- Forestry Department Director General Datuk Seri Dr Abd Rahman Abd Rahim said the department would draw up a 5 year blueprint to reforest Cameron Highlands.

We, Cameron Highlanders are a very cynical lot. Even though in the history of Cameron Highlands there has never been visits by so many Ministers in a single day  and even after the announcement of DPM , we were still fairly unconvinced that there was enough political will to see it through. After decades of disappointment we have to see it happening on the ground to believe this.

On the 4th of December 2014, operation to clear the 1st illegal farm commenced in Blue Valley.  This farm was large and as it was on top of a hill, erosion from this site would flow onto the main road when it rains heavily. On a couple of other occasions attempts to clear this farm was abruptly halted . This time however under the National Security Council, 500 personnel from 16 agencies participated. (It was indeed strange to see pictures of armed soldiers standing next to rows upon rows of green lettuces.)

farm 4dec14mkn in farms 4dec14mkn farms 4dec2014soldier in farm dec 14

The demolition team took many days to clear the farm because of the sheer size of it.

To many of us this was the ‘turning point’ as this was the first time enforcement of land matters of such a scale took place. For the first time we see a ray of hope for the rehabilitation of Cameron Highlands. However the road to recovery for  Cameron Highlands will be a long and difficult one.