Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rampant agribusiness malpractices- Part 3: Destruction of Cameron Highlands

Figure 1: Forest clearing in Sg Mensun , Cameron Highlands (see in The Star)  

Rampant forest clearing over the past two decades have been carried out by farmers who either are cheating regulations or taking advantage of poor law enforcement. 

Cameron Highlands hill farms are supplying more than 60% of Malaysian vegetable and fruits needs while generating in addition sizable foreign earnings around 200 mil MYR, Singapore being a key market.

There should be about 2,800 farms by the end of the 2010s occupying an area around 3,300 ha on which 2,600 ha of vegetables (roughlly half cabbages) and 700 flowers (Barrow C.J. & al.). 

But these farmers are committing crimes against the environment and the rich biodiversity in uphill Pahang and Kelantan. Land clearing on hill slopes with a gradient above 30 degree is making landslides and soil erosion current hazards in surrounding water catchments stream and groundwater. 

Cameron Highlands is already packed with ugly and poorly regulated agribusinesses and as a result a steady destruction of its rich bio capacity is going on unrestricted. Low lands in Malaysia are heavily disturbed, so upland forests like those of the Cameron Highlands are an important refuge for biodiversity.

Loging forest in Gua Musang while trying to emulate the growth of Cameron Highlands is less advanced in the process. But as far as converted forest are concerned it looks that enforcement and restrictions are much weaker. The limitation of agribusiness in Cameron Highlands is moving farmers into Lojing Highlands.

The two states are politically opposed. Pahang and Kelantan- both rural areas- are respectively strong hold of BN/UNMO and PKR/PAS. In the run-up to the 13th general election coming soon, each party is trying to single out the blatant malpractices of the other party: forest destructions and clean waters are becoming more and more political sensitive issues.

The good news is that Malaysian awareness as concerns the environment conservation is increasing with the nation development.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

Developers had carried out projects without submitting Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports while most are just failed to follow its mitigation plans.

Environmental activists think that EIAs approved in Lojing and Gua Musang over the years, being of dubious quality should not have been approved in the first place.

Based on the Executive Summaries of EIA reports for conversion of forest to plantations in Gua Musang/Lojing approved by DOE Kelantan in the past five years (these summaries are available on DOE’s website), some questions are arising:

The bulk of these EIA reports are done by a small number of EIA consulting firms specialized in churning out EIAs for deforestation.

These firms are emanating or depending from the State and many of these EIA Executive Summaries are cut-and-paste jobs with a political bias.

Some of the findings and recommendations outlined in these summaries are just plain dumb.

Temporary Occupation License

Normally land are leased for 5-15 years period on a special tenure called Temporary Occupation License (TOL) . 

Poor soil and water conservation could lead to non renewal of a TOL, but this has been seldom enforced (see 
BarrowC.J. & al.).

The issuance of new TOL had been frozen for land cultivation in Cameron Highlands. But the Federation of Malaysian Vegetable growers said that because there was no chance for new farmer to apply : "So, some take the risk to make a living".

The Sultan of Pahang Sultan Ahmad Shah said it was not just farmers from Pahang who were guilty of irresponsible land clearing in Cameron Highlands, but outsiders as well.

After 2002 the allocation of new TOLs  have been substantially restrained in Cameron Highlands.
However, greater use of fertilizer, manure and sprinkler irrigation and an expansion of farming because TOL restrictions have being side-stepped are likely to mean more nutrient enrichment of streams and groundwater.

Those using excessive agrichemicals and manure and paying limited attention to soil and water conservation have considerable off-farm impact. Organic farming is especially vulnerable, as are river fisheries and irrigated farming in lowlands. It might be hoped that inefficient farmers would release TOLs for others to try more productive and perhaps sustainable and environmentally sound use of already cleared land. 

The law enforcement is very poor

Land has been cleared at a horrifying rate in an area in Sungai Mensun a small tributary of Sungai Bertam, where ditch erosion is already visible, tons of soil have been washed down into the waiting river down the slope (see in The Star)

Forest clearing without TOL or IAE is an irreversible process which should be severely punished by confiscation of equipment, imprisonment or huge fines. But it seems all this had been tacitly accepted and the lenient outcome is to let the farms going on.

Nobody seems to be particularly concerned at the official level! 

Fortunately some local organizations- such as REACH- had been formed and carry out grassroots actions that meet a large echo locally. REACH aims to preserve, restore and maintain Cameron Highlands as an environmentally sustainable agriculture and hill resort within a permanent nature reserve.

Examples of farming malpractices highlighted by REACH

Fertilizers and pesticides flow into the waterways 

Local farmers resort to copious amounts of manure and synthetic fertilizers and rely on indiscriminately and excessively on pesticides (see in The Star).

With rain and irrigation, all these fertilizers and pesticides flow into the waterways and get deposited in sediment. Toxic and illegal pesticidesTwo toxic and illegal pesticides known to cause serious health problems to humans are poisoning Cameron Highland's major rivers.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) researchers who conducted numerous tests found concentrations of the banned pesticides DDT and lindane in Sungai Bertam and Sungai Telom.

The United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had classified the pesticides as a probable human carcinogen.Both DDT and lindane have been completely banned in Malaysia. 

They are among the list of toxic chemicals identified in the Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which Malaysia signed in 2002 but has yet to be ratified.

Foul water

A group of farmer had their water supply polluted by illegal clearing by another farmer. Outraged, the affected farmers have lodged two police reports against the errant farmer (see in The Star).

Land Office enforcement officers have since ordered the land clearing to stop. But a site visit showed that workers were still busy preparing the cleared land at the top of the hill for agricultural cultivation.

Fish start to die in the river feeding a major water treatment reservoir

On the 28th of February 2012, fishes were found floating in Sungai Terla by the hundreds. Sungai Terla is the river feeding the reservoir at Sg.Terla water treatment plant supplying treated water to more than two thirds of Cameron Highlands.

Contamination of Sg Terla water treatment plant will continue to be a problem and probably escalate in severity so long as the root cause has not been removed .ie presence of farms and settlements in the water catchment areas. In line with the general practice of watershed management for the purpose of drinking water supply, there should not be any forms of human habitation within the Sg. Terla watershed.

Figure 2 : A farmer filling a glass of water at his tap

Is it possible to remedy the situation of Cameron Highlands?

(see: Sustainable Agriculture in the Cameron Highlands, BARROW, C.J and al. 2009)

Figure 3:  Hydroponic agribusiness in Cameron Highlalnds (see in Righway Round) 

In the past the focus of authorities and farmers has generally been on intensification, rather than soil or water conservation, and control of the pollutions. 

Soil erosion and irrigation control

Sprinkler irrigation and plastic rain shelters are adopted to improve yields and crop quality and allow diversification, rather than control erosion. It is likely that shelters can also reduce erosion from plots, but caution is needed to prevent the intercepted rain from causing gullying or sheet wash off-plot.

Land which is not disturbed often develops a crust of algae, mosses, lichens and micro-organisms, which almost certainly reduces erosion and might lock up some of the excess nutrients from fertilizers and manure. There has been research elsewhere on such crusts. If there are benefits in tropical highlands farmers could be encouraged to establish crusts.

Drip irrigation uses far less water and fertilizer than sprinkler irrigation and can cut evapo- transpiration losses and runoff erosion. However, it may lead to accumulation of salts and other contaminants in plots. More research is needed to check the value of drip irrigation in reducing groundwater and stream pollution.

MARDI Station in Tanah Rata has demonstration plots showing drip irrigation, hydroponics and catch-drains and a few farms now use such techniques.

Off-farm controls will also be needed to trap sediment that reaches streams. Constructing reed or water hyacinth beds and diverting streams through them could achieve this. The trapped sediment could be used to renew plots and the reeds composted or burnt for power generation.

Fertilizers and pesticides

Farmers are pressured to reduce agrichemical use, but much less attention has been given to controlling over-generous application of chicken-manure which is now more prevalent than chemical fertilizer usage.

The authorities have been trying to control pesticide usage for decades, but large numbers of growers were recently reported to be using banned compounds imported from Thailand and other countries. Unfortunately, illegal agrichemicals are cheaper and seen by farmers to be more effective.

Organic farming

Organic produce is an expanding domestic and export market. Studies suggest the organic farmers get roughly 50% better prices, but have lower yields than non-organic. Learning compost making and getting suitable raw materials like organic chicken-manure are key elements of successful organic growing.

But nowhere in Cameron Highlands all who are interested in organic farming could convert, because agrichemicals drift from other farms contaminate streams and groundwater needed for irrigation. 

Ironically, organic growers are amongst those making biodiversity damaging clearances in the Lojing Highlands, probably because they can clear uncontaminated land with clean water supplies.