3rd March 2014-When one comes from a country raked in poverty and famine, with a population density of more than 1000/km2 and everywhere you look is a sea of humanity, the will to survive is strong. So strong in fact that you are willing to fork out a huge amount of money to people smugglers to take you to this land of opportunity .You are willing to brave treacherous journeys across war torn countries , spent months in the malaria infested jungles, drenched in rain, half starved for you have heard that great riches await those who reached the shores of this beautiful country called Malaysia . You have heard that in many areas in Malaysia, food is plentiful and laws are lax.
One such area is Cameron Highlands. Words have come that in a neighboring village a man called Jasir Miah could buy padi fields, a rice factory, a big house and have 4 wives after spending only 8 years in Cameron Highlands. “Where is this place called Cameron Highlands?” you ask yourself, “ I have to reach it. There are tons of money to be made there.”
So our town which is surrounded by greens and drenched in corruption becomes a magnet to foreign workers , legal and illegal. Currently there are more than 10,000 legal foreign workers here . They are mainly from our neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. Myammar, Indonesia , Nepal , Cambodia and Vietnam with Bangladeshis forming the majority.
Most of them work in the agricultural sector . The rest are in the service sector ( including in the hotel industry and as domestic maids) and in construction. They are usually industrious, do not mind working in tough conditions and for extended hours. Many have an entrepreneurial spirit. Their desire to earn money to help their families back home is very strong. So bending rules to achieve their aims becomes common
While we welcome legal foreign workers as they are needed in our farms and other sectors of the economy if they come here illegally , become involved in businesses and deprive our locals of their sources of income, spread diseases and create a demand for illegally cleared land, we see red. . (Foreign workers “businesses” in Cameron Highands now include food and souvenirs stalls, hotels, grocery shops, taxis and transport lorries.)
Yes, workers ,legal and illegal, are now the biggest culprits clearing land illegally in Cameron Highlands.
Typically when a foreign worker first arrives here, he will be legally employed ,usually as a farm hand. Once he is more settled he will look for a piece of forest to clear illegally. This will usually be deeper into the forest and the way it is cleared is also fairly typical. It will usually be done by hand and then burnt with the surrounding trees intact to make it less obvious (eg in Gunung Siku, Kuala Terla forest reserves and forests deep into Tringkap.) Some are down right obvious such as those by the roadside in K.Terla . If the locals pay X amount to corrupt officers to look the other way, the foreign worker pays double or much more.
For water, it is sourced from the ever dwindling streams. For fertilizers and pesticides it is ‘sourced’ from their employers unknowingly or purchased from suppliers from Thailand including banned pesticides. This banned pesticides are preferred because the vegetables grow faster, look ‘prettier’ cost is lower and these pesticides laden vegetables are now finding their way to our local wet markets.
To work these illegal farms, the legal foreign worker will use his network of friends to hire workers from his own country who have arrived illegal usually through Myammar, Thailand and then to Butterworth.
By having illegal farms , the foreign worker can earn between RM 10,000 to RM 50,000 a month depending on how large the farms are.
The illegal farm workers that were hired will eventually run off and open their own farms when they see how easy and lucrative it is. And another tract of virgin forest will go. So the cycle goes on and the environment suffers as a result of corruption and greed.
Forests are also cleared in hectares by local contractors with “connections” and these are sliced off to be sold to Bangladeshis. When the illegal clearing in Kg Jarik was exposed by the media 1 year ago, after the hue and cry had died down the Bangladeshis returned in the middle of the night to work their ‘purchased’ land.
The recent nationwide crackdown on illegal foreign workers is very timely indeed and we hope the operations will continue. The immigration officers were professional and quite a number of illegal foreign workers were apprehended early this year. In a village up North , illegal foreign workers remain in the jungle in clusters of 50 to 100 coming out only when the coast is clear, still working in the farms, chasing a dream at our envrionments’ expense.
As for our town , if we don’t get our act together and reduce corruption , we remain at the mercy of opportunists, local and foreign.