It is good news that more than 300,000 trees will be replanted at permanent forest reserves around Cameron Highlands to conserve its ecology.
In launching the tree-replanting project last week, Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Hamim Samuri has signalled a fresh start in the management of the highlands’ natural heritage.
As Malaysia’s most popular highland resort, Cameron Highlands has an iconic status that deserves much better treatment than it has received until lately.
The frightening mud floods that occurred in 2013 and again in 2014 have exposed the severity of the environmental degradation that has occurred in its breathtaking terrain.
The root cause of the mud flows had been attributed to uncontrolled land clearing by the agricultural industry that has flourished in the cool environment.
The scale of the devastation can be surmised from the RM2.2 billion price tag for the restoration plan that was announced by the Cameron Highlands Rehabilitation Technical Committee in April.
The operation, National Security Council secretary Datuk Seri Alias Ahmad had said after chairing the committee’s meeting, would involve:
• Conserving the environment;
• Cleaning river areas;
• Constructing walls at dangerous slopes; and
• Cleaning encroached areas.
The fact that the National Security Council has had to take control of the situation reveals that serious doubts have surfaced about the administration of the highlands.
The extent of the rehabilitation programme is just as revealing, as Alias had announced that the Forestry Department’s replanting programme would cover 30% of the forest area in the district.
A vital element in the sustainable management of the highlands that must be addressed is the issue of corruption. This factor has often been alluded to as a reason for the ineffectiveness of the government’s measures to prevent illegal hill clearing prior to the current high-level intervention announced by Alias, which is code-named Ops Gading.
This issue has been highlighted by a number of conservation-minded groups, including the Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (Reach), which describes itself as a community-based organisation formed by a group of Cameron Highlands residents alarmed by its rapidly deteriorating environment.
The group’s president, R Ramakrishnan, has been quoted as saying that the main reason for the unstoppable land clearing was corruption, and the second factor was the farmers’ greed.
In an article in The Star in November 2013, right after the major mud flood of that year, he had told the newspaper that over the years, Reach, which was set up in 2001, had lodged many reports on the situation and sent letters to the district officer, menteri besar and the MP.
“We never received a reply. It seems like the authorities only pay lip service every time a media report is published,” he said.
In the same article, Malaysian Nature Society president Prof Dr Maketab Mohamad was quoted as saying that the menteri besar and the district officer were the two most powerful individuals needed to solve the problem.
“If they work together in enforcing the regulations, the whole problem in Cameron Highlands can be solved in less than a year,” he said.
With the National Security Council coordinating nine key agencies in the current effort to rehabilitate the highlands, it can be hoped that real change is in progress.
Nevertheless, old habits tend to die hard. In May, Alias told the media that illegal farmers had returned in three locations that had been cleared a year ago, and the Department of Irrigation and Drainage had identified 26 rivers where such encroachment had occurred.
Yet, even the Cameron Highlands Local Plan 2030, which was developed “to restore the Cameron Highlands to its former glory” following the flash floods of November 2014, contradicts this aim, according to a review on the Reach website.
“If some of the projects in this plan are carried out, the environmental damage will be huge — ranging from loss of biodiversity, slope instability, shallower waterways in an already exhausted river system and compromising further water catchment areas. It will result in more landslides and flash floods, the very problems that this replacement plan seeks to prevent,” the review said.
Further, the review states that based on the EPU study on the Sustainable Development of the Highlands of Peninsular Malaysia in collaboration with WWF, Cameron Highlands has already exceeded its carrying capacity.
“In simple terms, the infrastructure of Cameron Highlands can no longer cope with a further increase in the population,” it said. “In this replacement plan, many of the mixed development projects will be in Tanah Rata and Brinchang, the two remaining towns with ‘some green left’. Large areas of the Mentigi Forest Reserve and Ulu Bertam Forest Reserve, including hectares of the famed mossy forests and jungle trails, will go. What ‘glory’ is there left of Cameron Highlands then?”
Even to the casual visitor, the overdevelopment of the towns in the highlands is only too evident. In addition, the proliferation of farms growing temperate fruits and vegetables, with their unsightly canopies stretching in every direction, is a serious turnoff. Above and beyond this, the nightmarish traffic jams during weekends and public holidays is enough to ruin any holidaymaker’s trip to this resort.
Much damage has already been done to the beautiful Mossy Forest, which rewards the jungle trekker with an ethereal lost world experience. Although the forest was closed for six months last year to help the flora to regenerate, it failed to undo the damage done to this delicate ecosystem by the overload of visitors, Reach was quoted as saying in a recent news report.
In order for Cameron Highlands to remain attractive, it must be valued as a treasure trove of nature, rather than an economic resource that must be extracted.
An important step is to end political control over the highlands by placing its management under an independent, community-monitored authority. Along with this, the Cameron Highlands administration must be given sufficient resour-ces to enforce its conservation status as a natural heritage, instead of a wilderness that is open for anyone to exploit any way they choose.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge