CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Nearly three generations of their families have operated the fruit and vegetable farms in Kuala Terla in the mukim of Ulu Telom here, for over half a century but another 50 smallholders there are likely to be evicted by the Pahang state authorities this week.
Between Feb 25 and mid-March, the Cameron Highlands district and land offices tore down the structures at 11 farms located in the same area under the first phase of its enforcement against the Kuala Terla smallholders who, according to the state government, not only violated certain conditions stipulated in their temporary occupation licence (TOL) but also used prohibited chemical substances that allegedly contaminated the nearby river.
The authorities are expected to carry out the second phase of its enforcement action sometime this week, this time against 50 farms spread over an area of 80 hectares in Kuala Terla.
The affected smallholders, who have been issued a 30-day notice to vacate their farms, are hoping that Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail would meet their request for a dialogue to discuss the issue before taking action against them.
Pollution allegations untrue
Justifying the state authorities’ enforcement action, Wan Rosdy had said that the farmers concerned were operating their farms in the Terla water catchment area and that their activities have caused one of the rivers there, Sungai Ichat, to become polluted.
He said the Kuala Terla Water Treatment Plant, which has been operating since 2007, used to draw its raw water supply from Sungai Ichat and Sungai Terla.
“Both these rivers are supposed to be its sources of raw water supply but now only the water from Sungai Terla can be used as Sungai Ichat is severely polluted, made worse by the illegal framing on both sides of its bank,“ he said, adding that Sungai Terla’s raw water supply was also diminishing.
T. Ramachandran, 45, who operates a 2.4ha vegetable and chrysanthemum flower farm in Kuala Terla, refuted the mentri besar’s allegations that their farm activities were polluting Sungai Ichat.
He claimed that Sungai Terla was, in fact, more polluted as a result of large-scale illegal farming carried out by some companies located in the upstream area of the river.
Sungai Terla – which is a source of water supply for about 70% of Cameron Highlands residents – and the much smaller Sungai Ichat flow separately before merging to form Sungai Telum, he pointed out.
“Therefore, we urge the mentri besar and the relevant authorities to come down (to Cameron Highlands) to get a clearer picture. This matter has to be resolved fast because we’ve been told to vacate our farms by this week... we are going to lose our source of income,“ he told Bernama.
Ramachandran said he would incur losses of more than RM1 million if he is evicted from his farm.
“How am I going to repay my bank loan?” he asked.
He has sent a memorandum to the Pahang Land and Mines Office and Pahang State Secretary’s office, outlining his proposal for the creation of a small catchment area in the upper reaches of Sungai Ichat and installation of a one-kilometre-long pipe to channel water from the river to the Kuala Terla Water Treatment Plant to overcome the water shortage issue.
Another farmer S. Saravanan, 39, is distressed that the state government is accusing the 61 smallholders operating along Sungai Ichat of polluting the river when the real culprits were the farms operated by large companies in the upstream region of Sungai Terla.
He claimed that some irresponsible people have also installed pipes to channel water from Sungai Terla to their farms which, he pointed out, has contributed to the shortage in water supply in Cameron Highlands.
S. Mathan, 36, who operates a two-ha vegetable farm, said it was unfair to treat them as illegal farmers and accuse them of contaminating the river.
On the TOL, he said each time he visited the district and land offices to update his licence or to pay the necessary fees, he would be given a letter stating that his TOL was still active.
“No information was given to us about our eviction,“ he said, adding that they also had good reasons to put up plastic canopies for some of their vegetables and fruit trees and build quarters for their workers to stay.
“Strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and capsicum thrive when planted inside plastic canopies. And, we had to build the workers quarters as it was one of the conditions we had to meet when applying for foreign workers at the Manpower Department.”
Wan Rosdy had said that the state government had stopped issuing TOL since 2017 as the farm operators had violated its terms by building permanent structures on their smallholdings.
The smallholders whose farms were torn down during the first phase of the enforcement action over the last two months never expected their years of hard work to come to nought.
“Everything was destroyed. The only things left behind was the canopy and the net to keep insects away... we didn’t even have the chance to harvest (our fruits and vegetables),“ lamented one of the affected farmers.
Tan Kian Teck, 35, a third-generation smallholder, said he had spent RM300,000 to build a canopy to protect his cherry tomatoes, planted on a 0.8-ha plot operated by his family since 1968.
“The notice to vacate our land within seven days was not fair to us. We hope the authorities will carry out a thorough investigation, instead of putting the blame on us alone,“ he said.
Lee Ying Loon, 46, another victim of the recent enforcement action, said before he took over the 50-year-old farm, his grandfather and father had been operating it.
He is now almost at his wits’ end trying to figure out how he is going to repay the bank loan he had taken.
Handle issue carefully
Cameron Highlands resident K. Ageelan, 28, meanwhile, said the state government has to handle the farm issue carefully as Sungai Terla was also polluted.
He felt that not all farmers disposed of their agricultural waste or chemicals into the rivers there.
“In some cases, three generations of the same family have been operating the farms. Just because there’s some pollution in a river doesn’t mean that all the smallholders are guilty.
“The enforcement action against them has resulted in them losing their livelihoods. The authorities should investigate the actual causes of the river’s pollution from all angles as illegal land exploitation is taking place behind the hills and this has yet to be addressed by the state government,“ he said.
Lee Jia Ci, 37, from Brinchang, also felt that only a handful of farmers were responsible for Sungai Terla’s pollution problem.
Bernama, meanwhile, has sought further clarification on this issue from the Pahang government but has yet to get any response. — Bernama