Camerons by-election special: What is really at stake

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Logging in Cameron Highlands - Photograph: Bernama

Overdevelopment, fuelled by unbridled greed and corruption duringe four decades of Barisan Nasional misrule, has taken its toll, writes Wandering Malaysian.

Mustafa K Anuar’s insightful article warning against treating the Orang Asli as a vote bank prompted me to ponder over Cameron Highlands ahead of the 26 January by-election.

I have frequently visited Cameron Highlands since the 1970s and treasure fond memories of spending school holidays in the cool weather and pristine jungle. Sadly, I have witnessed the gradual degradation and decline wrought by thoughtless and unregulated development.

This sort of development, fuelled by unbridled greed and enabled by corruption and ineptitude during four decades of Barisan Nasional misrule, certainly benefited many well-connected individuals. But at what cost?

Cameron Highlands covers 71,000 hectares, of which 75% is above 1,000 metres in altitude. More than a third consists of steep slopes of a gradient greater than 25%. Any forest land higher than 1,000m above sea level is classified as reserved forest or catchment forest land and is designated as environmentally sensitive land. Clearing such land is prohibited. Similarly, slopes greater than 25% are designated as unsuitable for development given the high risks of soil erosion.

But the reality today is that much of this legally protected forest land has suffered rampant illegal clearings and unsustainable farming practices. The figures are staggering. Between 1966 and 2010, land use for vegetable farming increased almost seven-fold while urban development in Tanah Rata and Brinchang more than doubled. Encroachment of river reserve areas has led to a decrease of water bodies by 25%. (These figures are from an excellent paper by Razali et al, 2018 here.)

The combination of irresponsible use of pesticides and fertilisers and water pollution from surface run-off, soil erosion, landslides and high sedimentation rates in riverbeds has created major ecological disturbances in Cameron Highlands. This has threatened the residents’ livelihoods and wellbeing and undermined economic sustainability. Tourism arrivals are reportedly falling due to rising temperatures, traffic congestion, the risk of landslides and the deteriorating quality of attractions.

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Tragically, it is the Orang Asli who bear the brunt of the consequences of this ecological disaster and endure the destruction of their ancestral land, which is gradually and systematically being denied to them. Nationwide, land already gazetted as Orang Asli reserves has shrunk and land approved but not gazetted has decreased by more than 30% (Malaysian Human Development Report, 2013).

The Orang Asli are not covered under Article 153 of the Constitution which confers a special position to the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. They come under legislation for the protection of aboriginal people under the Aboriginal Peoples Act, 1954 (which has clearly failed in protecting them).

The poverty rate among Orang Asli is a heartbreaking 77% of whom 35% are hardcore poor. The average life expectancy of the Orang Asli is significantly lower than the Malaysian average, and they have higher rates of maternal and child mortality.

Most Orang Asli children drop out of school and end up in low-paying unskilled jobs. The influx of undocumented foreign labour into Cameron Highlands further reduces opportunities to earn a living, driving the community into despair and further marginalisation.

I have therefore the utmost respect for the Barisan Nasional candidate, Ramli Mohd Noor, as an Orang Asli who has succeeded against these tremendous odds. I sincerely wish I could support him in this by-election if I had even the slightest hope that he would be a genuine agent of change for the Orang Asli and for the Cameron Highlands.

Unfortunately, I cannot help but feel that he is being exploited by Barisan Nasional, in its desperate gambit of playing the ethnic card, with the hypocritical support of Pas, with its legacy of allowing rampant logging and displacement of the Orang Asli in Kelantan.

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No matter who wins, this is my wish list for the next MP of Cameron Highlands:

  • Freeze all land-clearing activities and get the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency to launch a comprehensive investigation into the land administration practices of the past, including the issuance of temporary occupation licences (TOLs) and all relevant local, state and federal approvals and permits
  • Review the Telom Dam project to ensure that the environmental and social impacts especially on the Orang Asli are adequately addressed and, if this is not possible, examine alternative renewable energy sources
  • Repeal and replace the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 to bring Orang Asli into the mainstream of Malaysian society based on respect and recognition of their rights to self-determination of their social, economic and cultural assets and most importantly protect their ancestral land rights and restore access to their land
  • Review the multiple studies and plans carried out to date such as the Department of Agriculture’s Geographical Information System census and the Cameron Highlands District Local Plan and ensure adequate funding for priority initiatives to repair, rehabilitate and restore degraded forests and rivers and improve slope stability and drainage
  • Establish a Cameron Highlands authority with the required statutory mandate to plan, develop, manage and regulate all development activities in a sustainable, equitable and inclusive manner for the benefit of future generations

Wandering Malaysian is the pseudonym of a regular reader of Aliran.

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