PART FOUR: RED EARTH

 

The family stood quietly by the forest next to their home, watching it burn as other farmers and workers cleared land to make way for more farms.

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The rising smoke blanketed the hills with dust and soot.

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“Daddy, will trees still exist when we grow up?”

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The voice of seven-year-old Ocean broke the silence, and shattered his father’s heart.

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Struggling to hold back his tears, Tien Khuan grasped his son’s hand tightly.

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“Yes they will. I will do my best to protect the forest.”

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In his 13 years as a farmer, Tien Khuan had never seen so much land being cleared. More than 5,000ha of land was cleared illegally in the highlands.

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It was particularly dry last March, and everyone was taking the chance to clear as much forest as they could to expand their farms.

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His wife, Woon Sing, had tears in her eyes too.

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The green swathes of hills had been burnt red.

Such widespread deforestation and
over development of the highlands
had been worrying many residents.

They knew that once the year-end
wet season started, floods and
mudslides would be inevitable and
worsened by the increased forest loss.

Sure enough, in November 2014, severe
floods hit multiple towns in Cameron
Highlands, killing at least three people.

Tien Khuan is no ordinary farmer.

He had spent three years lecturing
at Tunku Abdul Rahman College before
he switched to growing pea sprouts in
2002. He holds a Master of Science in
Physics from Malaya University.

His wife’s love for nature and agriculture
later prompted him to set up the Terra
Organic Farm in 2006, where he started
practising the Australian Demeter
Bio-Dynamic method of farming.

Farming without pesticides and fertilisers
started off as an uphill task for Tien Khuan.

With little experience on this new method
of farming, he had initially found that most
of his crops ended up being eaten by pests.

But he did not give up.

“There were no instant results. Sometimes,
you have got to stop and smell the soil.
It lives and breathes. You have got to learn
to respect it,” he said.

However, Tian Khuan and Woon Sing
worry for the future of Cameron Highlands.

“Modern agriculture uses a lot of chemicals.
These are highly hazardous and will contaminate
the soil and groundwater,” said Woon Sing.

Indeed, recent water tests by Pesticides
Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP) have
found traces of Endosulfan II— a banned
pesticide known for its cancer-causing
effects on the human body— in the locale’s
tap water.

“The vegetables that many people eat
nowadays are not vegetables. They are
full of pesticides and fertilisers, which
cause health and environmental problems,”
Tien Khuan said.

According to Tien Khuan, such pesticides
are not only harmful to humans— they also
kill organisms in the soil, resulting in poor
soil quality and higher levels of water runoff
during the wet season.

“This is suicide.”

To address concerns regarding unsustainable
agricultural practices, Tien Khuan and a group
of farmers founded the Cameron Highlands Agriculture
Entrepreneurs Association, also known as
Pertubuhan Pengusaha Pertanian Cameron Highlands
Pahang (PPPCH) in January this year.

The association helps farmers apply
for Temporary Occupation Licenses (TOL)
for land use while encouraging sustainable
farming practices.

“While farmers are always aiming for
a bountiful harvest every year, not all
are blinded by greed,” Tien Khuan said.