CAMERON HIGHLANDS: A special task force to be set up under the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry will work with the Pahang Government to tackle the widespread ravage of Cameron Highlands.
But even as newly-appointed Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel announced this yesterday, another huge tract of virgin jungle was found stripped bare to make way for more vegetable farms.
The ongoing uncontrolled clearing of jungle slopes has led to residents to voice accusations of corruption involving officials and protection by powerful hidden forces.
The latest area of rape, spread over about 10ha, is located upstream of the crucial Kuala Terla water catchment area. Part of it is behind a steep hill and hidden from view.
Palanivel, who is also Cameron Highlands MP, said the wanton destruction of the hills must be stopped.
“The ministry has its plans in line. It will be my duty to implement them and initiate further action,” he told The Star.
He said the special task force was necessary because the highlands needed urgent attention to safeguard them from further harm, adding that remedial work to repair existing damage was costly.
The minister said unbridled damage had also led to poor water quality in the rivers, siltation, soil erosion and frequent landslides in many places.
“Many people’s lives are affected because they rely on the rivers as their source of water, especially the orang asli,” he said
Environmental organisations, including the locally based Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (Reach), have repeatedly highlighted illegal land clearing cases over the years.
Reach president R. Ramakrishnan expressed his frustration over the dire situation and ineffective enforcement methods of the authorities.
“The lack of enforcement has led many locals to believe wide- spread corruption is taking place,” he said.
A check at the latest cleared site showed workers busy levelling the terrain behind the hill using an excavator and four tractors.
They stopped abruptly upon realising they were being filmed.
Apparently, the workers had been pushing felled tree trunks and boulders into a valley where a stream merges with Sungai Icat.
Sungai Icat flows into Sungai Terla, where water is drawn from the catchment area.
The Kuala Terla water treatment plant, located downstream, supplies 60% of water to Tanah Rata and Kampung Raja.
The stream is now choked by silt and felled trees, while farm waste such as fertiliser bags are found strewn near the water.
Ramakrishnan said the authorities were supposed to close down the farms when the issue was first highlighted but had allowed them to grow to a staggering 80 in just a few years.
He said enforcement officers from the Land Office had visited the place in early May.
“But they came back empty-handed as the workers had left the site. Most likely, they had been informed of the raid.
“This is why I believe that either the local authorities or somebody high up is backing the culprits,” he said.
Another patch of steep slope in Perlong Valley is also being cleared behind the Kuala Terla water treatment plant, with a large stream next to it already showing a massive pile up of silt.
The Star reported in December that the silted-up stream had overflowed its boundaries during the rainy season and caused a portion of the only road leading into the area to cave in completely.
A culvert has now been built under the repaired road, which has not yet been tarred, to direct the flow into Sungai Telom, downstream of the water intake.
“The culvert has made things even worse. Instead of trapping the silt, it is now an open channel for all the silt to flow into Sungai Telom,” Ramakrishnan said.
Malaysian Nature Society president Prof Dr Maketab Mohamed said that as Sungai Telom flows into the new Ulu Jelai hydroelectric dam, the sedimentation would affect the turbines and cause the dam to fill up quickly.
“When I studied Cameron Highlands’ waters about five years ago, there were about 20 vegetable farms upstream. Now, there are 80,” he said sadly.
He led the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia study in Oct 2008, which detected E.coli bacteria at the Sungai Terla and Ulu Bertam watersheds, revealing contamination from unsanitary worker toilets and from fertilisers such as chicken droppings.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia researchers detected two toxic and illegal pesticides – DDT and lindane – in Sungai Telom and Sungai Bertam last year.
Both are completely banned in Malaysia while in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified them as probable and possible human carcinogens.