The highlands I once knew are fast vanishing – Cameron highlands, Malaysia

I visited Cameron Highlands several times during my 6 year stay in Malaysia. When you live in congested, smothering Kuala Lumpur escaping to the cooler climate of the highlands helps you regain your breath and your sense of personal space. But not unconditionally and not before navigating your way up through the sinuous road often obstructed by fallen branches, rocks, animals, potholes and heavy vehicles. Such is the challenge that very often, the very last 5 kms of the road can take up to two hours to complete.

Cameron Valley Tea Plantation

But then, after the grueling journey, the deep green plateau. And hidden among the mist, the rich, intricate rainforest and the serene,  hypnotising undulations of the tea plantations. A landscape that has mesmerised many and offered a haven for the   ill since William Cameron first stumbled across it in 1885 during a mapping expedition on the Titiwangsa Range.

Cameron Highlands Sunrise

Visitors now come from far and wide, new infrastructure having been built to make access to the highlands a little easier. Besides the sheer beauty of the scenery, famous tea plantations, strawberry and vegetable farms, local markets and architectural remnants of a colonial heyday attract local and foreign tourists – far too many tourists.  So many that as a result, today, Cameron Highlands has become saturated with apartments, hotels, shops and stalls, exceeding its capacity by far.

Rolling Green Valley

The water is now polluted, the jungle is being cleared to farm illegally and, as a result the land and the indigenous Orang Asli population are suffering. Rampant land clearing for agricultural cultivation now riddles the hills, carried out by farmers who either do not have a permit or are simply flouting regulations. Heavy machinery is used for these purposes on weekends defying the prohibition to do so; land clearing is carried out on hill slopes with a gradient above 30, making the risk of landslides and soil erosion an imminent and risky possibility and some times, sadly, an actuality – on the 8th of August 2011, the local indigenous orang Asli settlement was severely affected by a landslide that killed four women and three men and injured many others.

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Knowing that erosion causes loss of fertility and topsoil,  local farmers resort to copious amounts of manure and synthetic fertilisers that wash off during rainfall into the waterways. Conventional farmers also rely on pesticides, which they use indiscriminately and excessively to protect their crops. Again, with rain and irrigation, this flows into the waterways and gets deposited in sediment. Levels of DDT in tested water have been shown to be 200 times higher than the tolerated level in fresh water.  In 2004 and 2005 nine children died in the highlands, all of them Orang Asli who live in a settlement downstream. The authorities said that the reason of death was mysterious illness.

off to the fields

Farmers indiscriminately dump waste on the once green slopes, hoping to have it flushed down by the rain into the rivers. It saves them having to worry about properly disposing of it.

It´s a shame.

Fortunately, though, the rape of Cameron Highland´s unique natural ecosystem is not going unnoticed. Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (REACH), a group of concerned highlanders, has been championing the preservation of the region´s pristine environment since 2001. The group is now run by a group of volunteers with funds from membership, donations, small grants, reforestation activities and sales of souvenirs.

orang asli in cameron highland

There are also other responsible and respectful travel options to Cameron Highlands. Eco Cameron, for instance, offers numerous options for ecotourism in and around Cameron Highlands that are guided by experienced nature guides. You can read Matt Preston´s article recounting his experiences in one of Eco Cameron ´s day tours for a full insight into the beauty of this location. 

And if you do visit this majestic destination, please try to enjoy its beauty with the reverence that it deserves and needs.