The ravaging of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands

Land is being cleared at an unprecedented rate in Malaysian region famous for its beauty and fertility.

    The ravaging of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands
    The Cameron Highlands is an important tea-growing region [EPA]

    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - High up in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, in a forested valley once home to a community of indigenous people, a platoon of heavy trucks and excavators is hard at work pulling down trees and devouring the surrounding hills to make space for a new township.

    Land is being cleared at an unprecedented rate in the highlands, some 1,500 metres above sea level, not only for housing, shops and hotels, but also for vegetable and flower farms. The average temperature in the area has risen two degrees Celsius in the past decade.

    The biggest problem in the Cameron Highlands is "the uncontrolled clearing of the forest, even in the water catchment area", said Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, who was born in the region and in 2001 set up Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands, or REACH, to help protect and preserve the area's unique environment. "The effect has been most direct on the flora and fauna. We used to see plants that we now can't find. We see lowland birds are migrating up here and the highland birds are moving out."

    People have been visiting the Cameron Highlands for decades in search of a cool respite from the steamy lowlands below. First it was the British, who glimpsed something of their homeland in the forested landscape - and, after independence, Malaysians, who enjoyed the cool weather and began developing vegetable farms on the plateau.

    John Russell was one of the early pioneers. After making his name in tin mining, he spotted the potential for growing tea in the agreeable climate of the highlands. Importing bushes from Sri Lanka in 1929, he sculpted his first tea garden from the steep terrain with the help of a few labourers, some mules and a single steamroller. Some of those original bushes continue to be harvested today by Boh Plantations.

    His second farm, Sungai Palas, opened a few years later, and is now one of the area's most popular tourist sites. The spectacular landscape - the tea bushes appear to tumble out of the trees on the mountain ridges and down the steep escarpments in a patchwork of greens - are a photographer's dream.

    Rapid development

    But even here there is no escape from development. Farmers in search of ever more land have started to encroach onto the hilltops. Caroline Russell, who now runs Boh and is the founder's granddaughter, thinks there needs to be a better balance between development and the environment.

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    "Yes, Cameron Highlands is an important agricultural centre with vegetables, flowers and tea, but tourism is also very fundamental," she told Al Jazeera over tea at her Kuala Lumpur office. "People are going for the whole idea of a retreat and it's not a retreat. Go there during a public holiday and it's pandemonium."

    For years there was only one route into the highlands: a narrow, and often treacherous, road cutting through thick jungle from the south to the plateau first discovered by William Cameron on a mapping expedition in 1885. Then, in 2004, a new road was completed - a major engineering feat in itself - opening up the northern highlands to Malaysia's main highway and bringing in more farmers, developers and tourists.

    The clearing of forest from steep slopes has already triggered landslides in an area that sees plenty of rainfall. Roads have fallen down hillsides and homes have been flattened. In the worst incident, in 2011, seven indigenous people were killed when their homes were buried by mud.

    A primordial landscape

    From Gunung Brinchang, the Cameron Highlands' second-highest peak at just over 2,000 metres, it's still possible to get a feel for the environment of old. In the mossy forest, the mood is almost primordial. Clouds drape themselves across the landscape close to the top of the mountain, cloaking the trees in an eerie half-light; the water droplets feeding the moss that grows in vast springy clumps on the ground and trees. Orchids, some found only in the highlands, pitcher plants and ferns cling to branches as birds, hidden in the mist, call to each other across the sky.

    This landscape has long inspired mystery and intrigue. During Malaysia's decades-long Communist insurgency, the dense jungle proved an effective cover for the elusive fighters. In 1967, Jim Thompson, the man credited with reviving the Thai silk industry and suspected of being a spy, went missing during an afternoon stroll; his body was never found. More recently, Cameron Highlands was the setting for Tan Twan Eng's elegiac 2012 novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

    But the picturesque views of the past are increasingly difficult to find. The mossy forest that once covered as much as 100 square kilometres of land now measures only about 60 square kilometres. In its place are terraced houses and shops - helping trap the heat from the sun - or the plastic sheeting, irrigation pipes and stores for fertiliser and chemicals that accompany the plateau's commercial farms. Officially, there are some 2,000 farms, but REACH estimates there are more than twice that.

    Long-term, we will see wild plants and highland species disappear. Fish and aquatic species are already in jeopardy.

    - Andrew Sebastian, Malaysian Nature Society

    The effect on water supplies has been disastrous. Researchers have found E. coli and high levels of pesticides and chemicals in the highland's rivers, which provide drinking water for local communities. The siltation also forced the closure of the area's hydroelectric dam because the turbines were clogged with mud. Even now with a clean-up underway, the lake remains brown and fetid; the continuing deforestation and construction upriver clog waterways and send sediment down to the lake.

    Maketab Mohamad, the president of the Malaysian Nature Society, has studied the rivers in the area and says the situation is becoming "unmanageable".

    "It's not the Cameron Highlands that it used to be," he told Al Jazeera.

    "Lowland animals and plants now thrive, taking over and pushing out the highland species," added his colleague, Andrew Sebastian. "Long-term, we will see wild plants and highland species disappear. Fish and aquatic species are already in jeopardy. Most importantly, the loss of biodiversity could mean the loss of untold potential for ecotourism and pharmaceutical components."

    Alleged malfeasance

    Critics blame corruption. "It's the perennial problem," said Anthony Tan, the executive director of Kuala Lumpur-based environmental group CETDEM, which monitors climate change in the country. "Enforcement is the weak link."

    Last year Malaysia's Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) began an investigation into the District Office, the government unit that runs the area, after District Officer Ahmad Daud said insiders were leaking details on raids to those involved in illegal activities. MACC has yet to take any action. Daud didn't respond to requests for interview by phone or email, and wasn't in his office when visited. Neither MACC nor Daud responded to Al Jazeera's requests for comment.  

    Meanwhile, Rama continues to fight to save the environment of the place where he was born. He runs educational classes in schools, extols the virtues of recycling and supports organic farmers. REACH now has about 1,000 members, mostly local residents, who have spent recent years cataloguing the area's orchids and birds. The guide to the Cameron Highlands' 650 species of orchids is about to go into its second printing, and a book on its birds will be out later this year. They hope their work will not end up as a guide to a world that no longer exists.

    Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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