The destruction of another 30 acres of thriving farmland in the Kanthan food farming belt is not just a terrible loss to the six farmers tilling the land.
The people, especially those in Perak, have lost 30 acres of farmland that has traditionally supplied vegetables and fruit to the Menglembu wholesale market and elsewhere. Their produce included spinach (bayam), water spinach (kangkong), onion leaves, maize and starfruit.
Yet food security seemed to be a trivial matter for the authorities involved in the forced eviction of the six farmers on 24 October.
Backed by their seven days’ notice under Section 425 of the National Land Code, the state used its full might to clear the land. It disregarded the farmers’ appeals to the prime minister, the Perak chief minister, the land and mines director and the Perak State Economic Development Corporation (PKNP).
The state brought in heavy machinery, riot police and enforcers from the land office. Heavy-handed enforcers even threatened to drive their vehicles into the human blockade of farmers and activists from the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) who were trying to protect the farms.
Brute force was used against two women activists. One of them sustained a dislodged tooth and bleeding nose from a fractured facial bone after falling face first to the ground.
Bulldozers trampled over irrigation pipes and sprinklers, wrecking them. Four people – farmers and PSM activists – were arrested and dragged to a police vehicle parked nearby.
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The demolition crew then set to work, slashing vegetable and maize fields ready for harvesting in two weeks.
The Kanthan farming belt is in the PM’s Tambun parliamentary constituency. To his credit, concerned officers from his service centre were present from early on. They did their best to negotiate with the land and mines personnel and PKNP representatives to stop the destruction.
Unfortunately, after several rounds of negotiations with the different agencies, they failed to persuade the land and mines personnel who remained adamant: a spokesperson said he would only withdraw if instructed by the Perak chief minister and that not even the PM could stop the demolition.
It was an enlightening lesson on the division of power between the federal authorities and the state regarding land matters. It was unbelievable that the PM himself could not prevail.
Who are these farmers? According to the government and PKNP, they are “petani haram” or trespassers who were illegally tilling government land.
These six farmers are among some 500 farmers who were cultivating over 2,500 acres of land, straddling five “new villages” – Rimba Panjang, Kanthan, Kuala Kuang, Tanah Hitam and Changkat Kinding – stretching from Sungai Siput to Chemor to Tanjung Rambutan.
The farmers in the Kanthan belt alone produce 60 tons of vegetables and fruit a day. They are the largest maize producers in Malaysia. Yet, ironically, they have had to bear the label of “trespassers”.
The farming community here (hailing from the new villages) is into its third generation, having tilled the land since the 1930s to feed the growing immigrant population in the tin mines, estates and newly established towns.
The early farmers faced a daunting task in growing food – at that time, tapioca – at abandoned tin mines. In the decades that followed, they vastly improved the soil and converted the many mining ponds into convenient and reliable water sources for irrigation.
The varied and bountiful yield of vegetables and fruit from these grounds is testimony to their sheer hard work in transforming the land use from mining to agriculture.
But the formulation of the National Land Code in 1965 dispossessed these gritty farmers and turned them into ‘trespassers’ and ‘squatters’, with no rights to the land they had pioneered.
However, the farmers continued to work relatively undisturbed for a few more decades, applying for leases and ‘temporary occupation licenses’ while engaging with the land office to legalise their status.
In the 1990s, when land began to be sold for large profits, with alleged kickbacks for some of those involved, entire farmlands were up for grabs.
PKNP began disposing the land to rich corporations and entering into joint ventures.
In recent years, the farmlands have been in a permanent state of siege.
Yet, the farmers persevered, cultivating their crops in the shadow of menacing bulldozers, eviction notices and court notices. These came from large corporate interests, in favour of whom the land had been disposed of by the state.
The outlook appears grim for these farmers, because the law favours the title holder over the tiller of many generations.
In recent years, food security has become a pressing concern for the people of Malaysia who are now faced with shortages and rising prices for this most basic need.
Both the federal and state governments have correctly placed food security high on their agendas.
Yet, ironically, the Kanthan evictions seriously undermine their sincerity.
The government should have taken measures to support and encourage the abundant production of vegetables and other food crops in these farmlands.
The Kanthan area should have been – and still can be – gazetted as a food production area.
A favourite complaint of the state government is that the farmers have refused to accept their offer of an alternative site in Changkat Kinding.
Some farmers have indeed been offered alternative land, but when they visited the area, they found they were being offered a hill slope, with stony soil and a pond at the foothill, on which economic activity such as fish breeding and cattle farming depend. In addition, they were offered two acres of land on average, in exchange for the four acres they were working on.
The attitude of the state reflects a refusal to acknowledge the needs and contribution of the farming community. Instead, the farmers were seen as illegal free riders who were interested only in blocking development. The state’s actions also reveal a lack of interest in maintaining food security.
The cultivation of vegetables and fruits, fish breeding and livestock farming is an unglamourous occupation. It is backbreaking work.
Most of the farmers are older men and women, as most of the younger generation have moved to other occupations. So the farming community has dwindled to less than half its previous size. Some farmers have also voluntarily given up rather than fight eviction.
Malaysia should recognise and oppose policies that are harmful to food security instead of allowing materialistic values and racial prejudice to cloud rational thinking.
In this instance, prejudice may have had a part to play as most of the farmers being displaced are ethnic Chinese. But then, there have also been instances of ethnic Malay farming areas and ethnic Indian cattle farmers being threatened with extinction, with no alternative farmland allocated to them.
All these farmers have something in common: they are landless farmers and therefore deemed ‘illegal’.
Yet, it makes no sense to dismiss them as illegal. The government should instead reconsider its attitude and enable these farmers to work on their farms peacefully to help the nation achieve food self-sufficiency.