Cameron Highlands pay the price of vegetables for distant cities

Fri, 19/02/2010 – Jude Fanton

Cameron Highlands are near the centre of the Malay Peninsula. The rainforest-clad mountains reach 2500 metres. The area is blessed with plentiful rain, a cool and constant climate and fertile free-draining soils. Or should we say “cursed”? For these characteristics feed globalised trade. And there is a price; a much higher price than the vegetables fetch.
The Cameron Highlands plateau has been relentlessly deforested over the last fifty years. This startling transformation has been to create intensive market gardens that supply distant cities with vegetables and some fruits. To carry out all this work, entrepreneurs have brought labour into Malaysia from nearby less lucky countries, thus creating inequities that eventuate in social problems.
Cool climate and delicate vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and other brassicas, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and the whole gamut of Asian greens are grown intensively. The area is known for its strawberries. Massive quantities of all this are shipped off to the capital Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore and even Japanese cities.

Entering the Highlands
You will experience this phenomenon most dramatically by entering the Highlands from the north. Quickly you ascend on an impressive divided highway from the plains around the city of Ipoh. Bamboo dominates the lower slopes. Further up, fabulous rainforest covers steep mountains, home to the original inhabitants, the Orang Asli. Massive durian, longan, rambutan and langsat trees grow wild.
Suddenly a plateau appears and you blink as the green, curly-haired camel-like humps give way to smooth arcs of silver. Every surface is covered in glinting plastic; polytunnels of intensive horticulture. At the edges there are great gashes into the hillside, marks of expansion into the remaining forest.

Environmental Costs
Farmers and investors prefer to grow in the valleys but they even clear quite steep slopes to gain extra space and sunlight. This increases the chance of erosion and slippage.
To add to this picture of destruction, farmers use enormous quantities of chemicals as fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides. They are obliged to do this in order to produce so much so intensively.

Localised Climate Change
A more dire and long-term consequence is local climate change. With the clearing of the forest locals have noted an increase in temperature and a drop in rainfall.

IMAGE: Strawberries growing in glass house
IMAGE: Glass houses covering whole hillsides in Sabah
Who are the Workers? Immigrant labourers come in from Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Indonesia. They must work ten hours a day, seven days a week for which they receive around only AUD100 per month. With such low wages they form an underclass, not dissimilar to their status back in their own countries. Social problems of drug and petty crime result as time goes along and they fail to see their situation improve. In fact their relative wage has reduced over the last thirty years according to analyst Vasanthi Ramachandran in her book “As It Is, An Ode to a Decade of Hidden Issues”.
Read about one of these immigrant labourers in our next blog.