‘Very hard to earn money’: Higher land lease hit Cameron Highlands farmers, vegetable prices could rise

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Kee, a second-generation farmer, does not own the 1.01ha of land which his family has been toiling on for about 30 years in the cool highland plateau in Pahang.

Every year, he paid about RM2,250 (US$555) of temporary occupation licence (TOL) fee to the state government. The licence costs about RM900 per acre.

The 34-year-old, who only wanted to be known by his surname, makes a living growing spring onion, corn and chillies on the steep terraced slopes, but it has not always been profitable.

Cameron Highlands hilltops are covered with plastic tarps or terraced to maximise usage of land for agriculture. Most farms are small and are run by farmers who possess only Temporary Occupancy Licence. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

As farmers, they are subject to the vagaries of weather and unstable prices. Kee relies on middlemen to buy his vegetables, which are then sold in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru and as far as neighbouring Singapore.

He estimated that about 30 per cent of his produce goes to Singapore.

“It is all about the land. Our capital and profits vary depending on the land size that we own. It also depends on the weather.

“Plus fertilisers, pesticides, all these are considered as part of the costs. It’s very hard to earn money,” Kee said.

And his costs will soon rise, as the state government has in January this year introduced a new lease scheme for the 1,018 small-scale growers occupying 5,526,219ha land in three districts in Cameron Highlands.

Instead of a fixed TOL rate, the government land which the farmers sit on would be leased to the development arm of the state – the Pahang State Development Corporation – and then rented to farmers at RM4,500 per acre per year.

At a glance, it is almost a five-fold hike from the original TOL rate. Under the new scheme, farmers would also be offered a land tenure of three years, extendable by two years, instead of the yearly renewable TOL.

A farmer, who only wants to be known as Kee, sorting out his freshly harvested corn. Due to the rainy season, his corns would not able to be exported due to their small sizes. Farmers are victims of the vagaries of the weather and unstable market prices. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

While vegetable and flower farmers in Cameron Highlands have cried foul over the new scheme, which they said would add to their financial burden, Pahang Chief Minister Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail had said that it would go ahead as planned.

Describing the five-hold hike claim as “malicious and wrong”, he was quoted as saying by the Star that the RM4,500 fee was inclusive of quit rent, assessment tax, water charges, environmental charges and agricultural waste management charges.

Income from the new lease scheme would be utilised to conserve and rehabilitate Cameron Highlands, he said, as the hills have over the years borne the brunt of environmental exploitation in the form of land encroachment. 

Cameron Highland farmers depend on foreign workers from Bangladesh and Nepal to operate their farms. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

HIGHER VEGETABLE PRICES A POSSIBILITY

Growing up in Cameron Highlands after his farmer parents relocated from Penang in search of better opportunities, Kee has now inherited the farm business from his parents.

“My siblings used to farm but after they got married, they settled in Penang and Kuala Lumpur to find work in the city. I am the youngest and I decided to stay and help my parents,” he said.

The TOL gives him the temporary right to farm with the permission of the state, but the land insecurity has prevented him from investing in new infrastructure and equipment to improve his farming technology.

A farmer measuring vegetable stems to ensure standard uniformity for crops exported to Singapore. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

The rise in land lease would make it even more difficult for him to maintain his farm, Kee lamented. The farmers’ attempts to apply for land titles over the years have proved to be futile.

“The name of the land holder is not even us, which is way more difficult for us to invest in the land in the long term. (The fee of) RM4,500 per acre a year (and) my land has 2.5 acres, which means I need to pay for more than RM10,000 for the rental, not including other expenses such as the wages of workers and fertilisers.

“With rising costs and unstable crop prices in the market, it is difficult for us to maintain our business operation,” he said.

For Lim Chan Ho, 49, who has been a farmer for 20 years in Cameron Highlands, the increase in land leasing price is a huge blow.

In addition to running his farm, he had ventured into the business of distributing vegetables three years ago to supplement his income.

He now has over 100 farmer suppliers, whose produce are then distributed to 18 locations in Kuala Lumpur.

“Our costs will increase following the government’s increase of land lease price,” Lim said.

“And if the prices I get from the farmers (suppliers) are high, I’ll sell the vegetables at higher prices in order to cover the costs.

“For middlemen like us, our operation cost is relatively high. We need to hire workers, drivers and so on to get the vegetables delivered to different areas. If we can’t earn profits out of our businesses, we can’t continue to do it,” he said.

Cheng Nam Hong, deputy president of the Cameron Highlands Chinese Farmers Association, says the new land scheme does not allow farmers to invest in their land substantially due to the short land lease. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

Cameron Highlands Chinese Farmers Association deputy president Cheng Nam Hong, whose association boasts over 1,000 farmers, said it is inevitable that with the higher land lease and rising costs of operation, prices of vegetables would escalate.

This would be borne by consumers, he added.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

Under the new land lease scheme, farmers are required to pay to apply for Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices (MyGAP) certificates, a scheme to recognise farmers that adopt agricultural practices that protect the environment and workers’ health.

In addition, the farmers said they also have to fork out additional money to cover the legal fees, land survey costs, sheltered farming permits, etc.

In defending the state government’s move, Mr Wan Rosdy had explained to local media that the scheme was aimed at stopping illegal farming and protecting the environment of Cameron Highlands.

Illegal farming has been exacerbated by foreigners renting land from locals or farmers illegally opening land for agriculture without permit. As a result, deforestation, water pollution and soil erosion have become a common feature of the highlands, he had said.

Intensive agriculture over the decades has raised alarm over deforestation and water pollution in Cameron Highlands. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

Illegal cultivation is an ongoing problem in Cameron Highlands, an agricultural centre and tourist hotspot, and enforcement activities have been carried out over the years to evict encroachers.

Late last year, 60 landless Indian farmers were evicted and their farm structures and equipment were destroyed by the state enforcement authorities. The state government blamed water pollution of the Ichat River in Terla on the farmers.

Mathan Subramaniam, the president of the Cameron Highlands Indian Farmers Association with over 400 members, said the government should have given advice and guidelines to the farmers before resorting to eviction.

“We want to cooperate with the government to rehabilitate Cameron Highlands. But we don’t know what to do. The government should give us guidelines about how not to pollute the water and to protect the environment. We are happy to work with the government on this issue.”

Mathan, a 37-year-old third-generation farmer, operates a 8ha farm which he shares with nine other relatives; each possesses 0.8ha of TOL land.

He exports dragon chives, beetroots and leeks to Singapore.

During the British rule, workers were brought in from India to work in tea plantations and later, their descendants settled and turn to vegetable farming. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

FARMERS WANT LONGER LAND LEASE

In July, a memorandum prepared by Chiong Yoke Kong, Democractic Action Party (DAP) assemblyman representing Tanah Rata (one of the two state seats in Cameron Highlands), was signed by 1,785 farmers.

While the first phase of the land scheme involved 1,018 farmers, it would eventually affect all 2,041 TOL farmers in Cameron Highlands, according to Chiong.

Chiong told CNA most of the farmers affected are small-scale farmers who are farming on land between 0.4ha and 1.2ha.

“These small farmers will be affected the most. They are already facing difficulties to distribute their vegetables due to the movement control order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and now this.

The difficulty in securing workers have raised operational cost for small farmers in Cameron Highlands. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

“Instead of guaranteeing food supply and exports for the country, it seems that the state government is attempting to extract more money from the people,” he said, adding that while he understood the justification for the new policy, the implementation would only be an added burden to the farmers in times of uncertainty.

Among others, Chiong urged the state government to lower the annual rent to RM1,000 per acre in order to reduce the financial burden of the farmers.

He said it would also be more viable to lengthen the lease term to five years, with the option of a 30-year extension.

The state government has said that the new land scheme would curb illegal renting of land to foreigners since the costs would be too high to be attractive. While some 500 illegal farmers would be legalised under the new land scheme, Chong opined that illegal encroachers were just a very small part of the problem.

The new land scheme could mean tighter control over how farmers farm, with regulations of scheduled use of pesticides and fertilisers, and what they plant, he said.

When approached by CNA, the chief minister’s office declined to comment.

All of the dragon chives grown in this farm are exported to Singapore. (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

Cheng, the deputy president of the Chinese farmers association, said the growers hoped for a longer land lease, instead of the yearly TOL or the three-plus-two years under the new scheme.

“Farmers need a long-term lease for agriculture. During our meeting with the state government, we asked for a 30- to 60-year lease. We need the security to invest in our land such as to ask for bank loans. The time frame of five years is just too short for us to invest, let alone to farm sustainably.”

For the affected farmers who do not own the land they cultivate, the future remains bleak.

Some of them said they have received the contract letters from the state, which demanded a RM1,000 deposit to enter into the scheme. Some have signed while others were still waiting.

Mathan Subramaniam, president of Cameron Highlands Indian Farmers Association, does not want his children to be farmers like him. “There is no future in farming as we do not own the land.” (Photo: Jules Rahman Ong) 

Mathan, the leader of the Indian farmers, said his father was among the early batch of farmers who grew vegetables in Terla, one of the towns in Cameron Highlands. His great grandmother had arrived from India to work in the tea plantation under the British rule in the late 1880s.

“I like farming. I have been doing it since I was young. But when I look at my children, I feel there is no future in farming.”

“We cannot depend on it because we don’t own the land. If it is our own land, we have hope, we have a future. The weather, the labour cost… this generation don’t like to work in farms, so we have to rely on the foreign workers. It’s not easy to be a farmer. We have to work very hard to survive. I don’t want my children to be farmers.”

By : Jules Rahman Ong – CNA/tx

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