In Cameron Highlands, illegal farming looks here to stay

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: The Cameron Highlands by-election is just around the corner, but despite the usual campaign pledges, some residents are sceptical that anything will change in issues such as illegal farming which have dogged the constituency for many years now.

A restaurant owner who had sold vegetables before venturing into her own business said farming was generally a family affair.

However, she said, the illegal farming situation in Cameron Highlands appeared to be worsening.

“It does not matter who wins this by-election,” she told FMT when met in Habu, Ringlet. “To me, nothing has changed.”

This is despite government efforts to clamp down on illegal land activities such as Ops Gading, which was launched in 2014. In fact, she said, local farmers had been affected as well, as many were unable to obtain temporary occupation licences (TOLs).

“When they started Ops Gading, although they didn’t demolish our farm, they told us to take down the farm structure,” she said.

“Even just taking down the structure caused us to lose a few hundred thousand ringgit in revenue.

“When they say a lot of illegal farming operators are mostly local farmers, this is due to them not being able to renew their licences on time. (But) we still have to carry on with our lives as farmers because this is our bread and butter.”

The issue of illegal farming can be traced back to 2008, when the Pahang government froze applications for TOLs.

A local farmer who wished to remain anonymous told FMT that this, coupled with a lack of land, had encouraged the growth of illegal farming.

“Farmers could not meet the high demand for vegetables locally and from other countries, and there wasn’t enough land. So they had no choice but to start planting vegetables ‘illegally’,” he said.

“The government’s move to enforce strict TOL application rules also contributed to illegal farming as the farmers lost their patience waiting for the TOL issues to be resolved.”

He estimates that some 2,000 acres of illegal land have been opened up in Cameron Highlands to date.

He also claimed there had been an increase in number of undocumented workers whom he said were brought in to help meet the high demand.

He added, however, that most of the illegal farming activities are carried out by locals.

He blamed these activities for the pollution of streams, disruption of water supply and occurrences of landslides.

Even the government’s containment efforts had failed to tackle the problem of illegal farming, he said.

“The former Barisan Nasional administration started Ops Gading, now known as Ops Lestari. But it did not work.

“I hope the government of the day will take immediate action, otherwise the situation will become worse.”

He suggested more long-term efforts such as the replanting of trees to replace the forests that had been cleared for illegal farming.

“The government also needs to relax the TOL renewal terms,” he said.

Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Sim Tze Tzin recently urged the Pahang government to resolve the many land issues affecting local farmers.

He also asked for the TOL period to be extended to 30 years instead of the current yearly renewal term.

DAP political education director Liew Chin Tong meanwhile said the state government had been inefficient in approving TOL applications.

He said there were 2,041 TOLs available, with more than 1,000 new applicants.

“Currently, the state government is only processing about 10 per month,” he was reported as saying.

But to people like the restaurant owner in Habu, it does not matter who is running the state government.

“I haven’t decided who to vote for this time, but I realise now that whoever wins, it feels as though there is no impact on us.

“Our business is still suffering,” she said.