For anyone who visits the Cameron Highlands today, it is unmistakable that the most popular and magnificent hill resort in Peninsular Malaysia has left its best days behind.
Uncontrolled development has robbed this gem of nature of its refreshing charm, and left in its place unsightly clusters of commercial properties and a scarred landscape that is heart-breaking to behold.
Even more distressing is the realisation that for this erstwhile highland paradise, new evidence of mindless commercialisation peppering its winding roads confirms that the worst is yet to come.
A sense of foreboding fills the observer at the memory of the raging floods that swept through Ringlet town and Bertam Valley in October 2013 and again in November 2014.
This ominous feeling comes from noting that the evident denudation of the hills and haphazard development of its towns guarantee a repeat of the devastation when the next occurrence of excessive rainfall hits the highlands.
The human dimension of the Bertam Valley flood of 2013 has been graphically captured by Singaporean photojournalist Yeo Kai Wen in his website “The Disappearing Hills” . Featuring interviews with victims, farmers, elected leaders, activists and legal and illegal farm workers, it highlights the challenges that stand in the way of the rehabilitation of the Cameron Highlands.
One message that rings out clearly from the testimonies of these stakeholders is that as things stand, the remedial actions that have followed from the flooding, including the military task force that was sent in to the highlands to wipe out illegal farming and the community-led efforts to change farming practices, have not quite touched the heart of the problem: an overdose of greed.
In a touching segment entitled “Red Earth”, Yeo describes a scene where a farmer’s family watches in silence as the forest next to their home is set on fire by other farmers to make way for more farms.
‘“Daddy, will trees still exist when we grow up?”
The voice of seven-year-old Ocean broke the silence, and shattered his father’s heart.
Struggling to hold back his tears, Tien Khuan grasped his son’s hand tightly.
“Yes they will. I will do my best to protect the forest.”’
This incident sets the stage for their venture into organic farming in 2006, a journey of discovery that has put them in touch with like-minded farmers.
Nevertheless, the widespread deforestation and overdevelopment of the highlands continues to worry many residents, Yeo writes.
With the year-end wet season around the corner, floods and mudslides are a natural corollary.
To give an idea of the scale of the problem, one official is quoted in a news report last year as saying that an area equivalent to 8.4 million football fields has been illegally cleared.
This is despite the existence of the 2003-2015 Cameron Highlands Local Plan, showing that the problem is more deep-rooted than meets the eye.
In view of this, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the continuing degradation of the Cameron Highlands cannot be halted unless the entire area is put under the care of an independent governing authority that can say ‘no’ to toxic development.
Above all, such an authority must be guided by a sense of responsibility to protect the endowments of nature for the benefit of posterity, and to ensure the health of the total ecosystem, of which humans are an integral element.
There are already clear signs that the influx of visitors to the highlands has grown beyond manageable limits. Reports indicate that the roads to the resort become choked with vehicles during the peak tourist season.
According to a local guide, on a typical long weekend, it takes some three hours for traffic to crawl from Brinchang to Tanah Rata, the main town in the Cameron Highlands, a distance of less than 5km.
While the cool atmosphere of the Cameron Highlands, which is 2031 metres above sea level, is a definite attraction for Malaysians seeking to escape the sweltering heat of the lowlands, the tourism boom is also being fuelled by a growing appetite for temperate produce, such as strawberries, that visitors love to pick themselves for an exotic taste of farm life.
Apparently then, the novelty of a cool natural environment in the equatorial zone is not enough to keep the tourism industry in these highlands in a state of good health. So along with a fast growing list of hotels, resorts and guest houses, “attractions” like a spanking-new shopping centre, amusement park complete with Ferris wheel and numerous farms growing temperate vegetables or flowers, a bee farm, insect farm, strawberry farms and other fruit farms all compete to draw visitors to their gates.
In this frenzy for the tourist dollar, scant regard is paid to the aesthetic quality of the structures that are put up by these businesses. Clearly the worst offenders are the farms that cover the hillslopes with rows and rows of plastic-clad rain shelters, marring the otherwise soothing greenery of the highlands. Coming a close second are the haphazardly built shops that crowd the little towns in the highlands, set up without the least thought for creating a pleasant visual impact.
Nevertheless, several tea estates that are staple stops for visitors are a welcome relief from this commercial overload with their refreshing view of endless hillslopes draped in tea bushes.
All said, the visitor load and the hill-clearing activities have reached a point where it is killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Indeed, following the flood of November 2014, geologists had warned in a New Straits Times report that the Cameron Highlands risked massive mudslides and flash floods in five to ten years that could wipe out townships and villages if the hill clearing activity continued unabated. In the worst case scenario, it was headed for a collapse of the entire hill system, they said.
Can we bring this gift of nature back from the brink of doom?