RECENTLY, an illegal farmer in Cameron Highlands was charged in court for encroaching and unlawfully occupying government land to conduct agricultural activities.
The farmer was said to have been cultivating land the size of 17.5ha for two years, and following the landslide and floods in Cameron Highlands, went on to become the first illegal farmer to be brought to justice.
If found guilty under the National Land Code, the farmer can be fined a maximum of RM10,000 and/or jailed for one year.
The bigger issue here is that “land grabbing” by squatters and those who justify this under the pretext of being farmers has reached an epidemic level nationwide. Illegal occupation of federal, state and even privately-owned land extends throughout the country and is not restricted to Cameron Highlands.
Malaysian law is very clear about the rights of squatters – they (the squatters) have none! It is an offence to occupy land belonging to others without any prior permission or consent.
Illegal occupation of private, state and federal land by squatters is also blamed for hampering, delaying and, in some cases, even preventing the legal and rightful owner of the land from taking possession and developing it. In the case of federal and state land, the acts of a few selfish squatters normally stand in the way of development and benefits for the masses.
In most examples, squatters who unlawfully occupy the land make ridiculous demands before agreeing to vacate the land.
Some ask not only for compensation but also to be relocated to other plots of land.
Some squatters have even been willing to go to court to prevent being evicted. And when the court rules against their favour, the squatters resort to seeking political patronage as a means of resolving their problems. This modus operandi occurs with squatters on state-owned land.
By the way, some squatters even have the cheek to sub-let parcels of land they do not own to others for a quick side income.
While some landowners deal with squatters who live on their land, others face an even greater challenge in the form of squatters who run a commercial business on their property.
Commercial squatters have been known to occupy thousands of acres of land for commercial agricultural purposes – some even engage in industrial activities.
Such is the case with a group of commercial squatters in Tronoh, Perak who, despite being on land which does not belong to them, are refusing to vacate.
Nationwide, the business of commercial squatters is reputed to be worth millions of ringgit per year.
In the case of the “farmers” from Tronoh alone, it was reported in the media that they generated an income to the estimated tune of RM30mil annually.
Squatters conducting commercial businesses on state and federal land use the land without permission; they do not pay a sen for the use of the land; they make no contribution to the Government; some of their activities adversely impact the environment; they keep expanding and acquiring more land that becomes available; some squatters illegally occupy multiple plots of land in different areas; their activities undermine the efforts of farmers who conduct their activities legally and lawfully; in some cases, their produce and livestock are specifically meant for the export market and not domestic consumption; and the quality of their produce and livestock may even pose a health risk.
Although some squatters claim to have toiled idle land for generations, this does not negate the fact that they did so illegally and without any prior consent from the land owner.
Some squatters claim to have had their application for permission or a temporary occupation licence (TOL) to occupy the land repeatedly turned down, but even so it still does not justify their selfish act of land grabbing.
Unlawfully occupying land they do not own also does not entitle squatters to “pass the land down” to be inherited by his/her children or grand children – another common excuse.
It is therefore timely that the current penalties under the National Land Code be reviewed, taking into consideration that the existing RM10,000 maximum fine and/or one year’s imprisonment may well be just a slap on the wrist, especially to commercial squatters who claim they contribute millions of ringgit in terms of production, consumption and export annually.
At the end of the day, landowners too have rights. We have laws, and this should apply to land grabbers without fear or favour.
HARRIS ISKANDAR TAIB