REACH-ing...out

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As taps run dry and rivers get progressively contaminated through unsustainable development and farming practices, a community-based non-profit organisation was born in Cameron Highlands. Called REACH, its members work relentlessly to save the lands and rivers in Malaysia’s prime forest reserve and water catchment areas. Grace Chin and Anandhi Gopinath speak to the chief movers and founders of the group. In the late 1990s, the residents in Cameron Highlands experienced water shortages in their homes and businesses. Complaints were made, but as individuals their voices lacked strength and the desired response from the authorities. Realising that, concerned residents gathered in a meeting and decided to mobilise the community to address the environmental issues that they were experiencing.

They formed a non-profit community organisation called Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (REACH), with the aim of finding solutions to any environmental issue in Cameron Highlands that affects the population of 30,000 residents and also the quality of life of those around the area.

REACH was officially registered in 2001, with the help of other environmental groups such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), but as of 2003, it is run entirely by volunteers and residents of the community. Operating out of a small shoplot in Tanah Rata, the organisation counts 1,000 people in its membership registry, and they represent a wide range of backgrounds: property owners, hoteliers, doctors, educators, civil servants, retirees. The volunteers and members started out with little or no experience in environmental issues, but have shown willingness to learn and to share.

REACH has organised comprehensive programmes for the community, including recycling initiative and a commendable reforestation programme at an illegally cleared site in the Ulu Bertam Forest Reserve. It has also engaged federal ministries and state departments on environmental issues, and has been very vocal about its grievances with local authorities and the media too.

Creative approaches are employed in environmental outreach programmes, such as through photography and art, for example. The centre also acts as a community resource centre and has an impressive collection of historical photographs of the area dating back to colonial Malaya, publicly solicited from residents.

Scientific research is especially important when highlighting environmental causes to the media. REACH has worked closely with universities in Malaysia and in The Netherlands on water-testing studies and with Malaysian scientists on reforestation projects. This exchange of information and assistance has been especially valuable for the organisation.

For an organisation powered entirely by a volunteer community, and acting as volunteer watchdogs for the issues at hand, such as development and the environment, it is an arduous task and a tricky job.

Yet, their work is not always appreciated. Dr Liau Tai Leong, vice-president of REACH, says as with any community-based organisation, it is sometimes looked at with contempt, and suffer from the perception of being radical. “But when problems arise, people will say that this is our work. Yet, they are not willing to participate themselves,” he says.

Ramakrishnan Ramasamy, the president of REACH, says there is an increase in terms of community participation and membership. “Although the progress is slow, we are going in the right direction,” he says. When REACH started its documentation and publication project, Wild Orchids of Cameron Highlands, the community responded by participating in nature walks and data collection.

The residents of Cameron Highlands have voiced their greviences and backed up their claims with studies and research on water quality, but to no avail. According to estimates, the residents are facing four million litres of water shortage everyday since 2000. Residents have told REACH that they rely on their own supplies of bottled water and natural springs. It is not uncommon to see cars and bikes lined up at some roads during the daytime and in the evenings, as residents fill up their bottles from piped fresh spring water flowing from the hills.

After highlighting the water shortage, REACH started acting on reports of water contamination in their water supply too. Although the authorities acknowledged their letters and concerns, their responses ranged from non-committal to absolute silence.

When it was highlighted that traces of the banned pesticide DDT (dicholoro dipehnyl trichoroethane) were found in Sungai Burung — a former water source for most of Cameron Highlands back then, and the traces were detected in a concentration of 20,000 times higher than allowed — the authorities claimed that the chemical detected in the sample testing was merely residual, even when REACH submitted samples and evidences from the farmers. All Cameron Highlands got were signboards from the Ministry of Agriculture stating the consequences of banned chemicals in farming.

In 2003, REACH conducted independent water quality testing on drinking water upon receiving reports of water contamination in Cameron Highlands. When high levels of E coli bacteria — commonly found from organic and human waste — were found in drinking water at a record level “too numerous to count”, no governmental action was forthcoming. Also, when a test conducted by REACH and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia confirmed that E coli was present upstream and downstream in the Sungai Terla water treatment plant, no action was taken too.

It is frustrating, to say the least. In addition to water shortage and rationing, which occurs frequently during the high-peak tourist seasons, the highland residents have also been inundated with flooding and landslides. The organisation also raised issues regarding land clearing and on the excessive real estate development at Cameron Highlands.

Ramakrishnan estimates that there are about 2,000 farms operating in Cameron Highlands, also taking into account those that are temporarily using state land for agriculture.

He speaks frankly about the economics of supply and demand, but does not absolve the farmers of blame: “It is also the consumers’ fault. The farmers say, in order to grow nice and clean vegetables, we have to use more pesticides.”

As some of the conventional pesticides are not strong enough, farmers have imported chemicals from Thailand, for example, to brew a cocktail of pesticides for their plots. These farmers are well-informed of its toxicity. It is an open secret that many farmers plant pesticide-free produce for their own consumption, far from the plots cultivated for sale.

Yet, Ramakrishnan remains optimistic about change, even as he admits that it will be a long time coming, especially in Malaysia where taking action is merely about putting up a signboard.

Aside from speaking to the press, REACH conducts educational outreach that links water, forest and waste, and has worked closely with schools and the local councils. The Community Stream Investigators programme initiated by REACH, has been adapted outside of Cameron Highlands with much success (see story on page 30). The organisation has also won awards and accolades for its work and research, and has published a coffee table book, titled Wild Orchids of Cameron Highlands, produced by a team of volunteers.

Ramakrishnan hopes that proceeds from the book sales will be able to further fund its conservation projects in Cameron Highlands, and for further water quality testing at private labs.

“It’s always discouraging when things don’t go as you want it to, but at the end of the day, there’s still hope. My hope is the younger generation see what they have and what they are about to lose,” he says.

He hopes that we will not experience a time where we can only read about the environment in books. “Now, we read books and discover, ‘Oh, this is what a dinosaur looks like.’ If we don’t do anything now, one day we will read a book and look at photos and say, ‘Oh, this is what a tree looks like’,” says Ramakrishnan.

In the following pages, we profile these two champions of our environment on what keeps them going.Ramakrishnan RamasamyWhen we meet Ramakrishnan Ramasamy for the first time, it is to embark on a trail of some of the many streams and rivers that provide Cameron Highlands’ water supply. In pocketed vest, cargo trousers, camera around his neck and with ear-to-ear smile, Ramakrishnan definitely has the river-ranger-look down pat.

We are all excited about the journey ahead, but also a little apprehensive — we have been told the water here is severely polluted and we are afraid of what we might see. “You’ll be shocked. You won’t want to drink water from a tap anymore,” he warns us, still sporting his boyish grin.

The environmental issues that affect Cameron Highlands are a personal matter for Ramakrishnan, who was born and raised in Tanah Rata, thanks to his many days spent outdoors as a Boy Scout decades ago. Today, he is an assistant state commissioner for the Boy Scouts in Pahang, something he is intensely proud of.

Ramakrishnan never showed any interest in a desk job. After his post-secondary school job of running his father’s sundry shop in Tanah Rata (right above the shop is Reach’s headquarters), he went on to sell cooking gas in the entire Cameron Highlands area. He also managed two petrol stations in Brinchang and Ringlet. “I couldn’t do those jobs after a while as you had to be based in one office, and I’m more of an outdoor person,” he smiles.

His mountain climbing experience, gained from time spent in the hilly terrain of Cameron Highlands, opened up his world immensely as he was invited to join the Malaysian expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1994. While he didn’t make it to the top, he managed to scale Mount Annapurna instead — not as high as Everest but steeper, more dangerous and with a fatality rate three times that of Everest. The experience almost cost him his life. Ramakrishnan suffered severe frostbite and lost some digits, and had to abandon his dream of conquering Everest.

Based on the experience he acquired on his climb, Ramakrishnan was approached by the Malaysian Volunteer Fire and Rescue to be a member. He has participated in several search and rescue missions, such as the earthquakes in Iran and Sichuan in China, the tsunami in Acheh in Sumatra, the floods in Segamat, Johor and most recently, the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide in Selangor.

Suddenly, his bravado and passionate approach to life make sense to us. We are deeply impressed and full of renewed respect for him, but Ramakrishnan doesn’t find what he does that big a deal. What is more important to him is the work he is doing with Reach, which began in 1998 when a group of people concerned with the environment — specifically, the quality of the water supply in Cameron Highlands — got together to do something about it.

When Ramakrishnan first started with Reach, he realised that the first and most important thing is to know your rights. He took up the study of the Federal Constitution and read up on laws concerning the environment and the role of local authorities.

“I hated studying in school but now I can memorise all sorts of laws,” he says, with a wink. He grins as he describes his initial reluctance to being so actively involved in Reach. Paperwork was not something he signed up for when he first got elected as a pro-tem chairman. Then, with the support of his committee members, it slowly became routine.

Today, Ramakrishnan has left the community aspect of Reach’s activities to the other members and focuses more on building the necessary relationships with governmental authorities and with community stakeholders like farmers. It is evident from our trip that he and his jeep are sort of a fixture in the community. Passers-by greet him, even honking as he drives past.

Cameron Highlands is a town where everybody knows your name. That may complicate his work, but Ramakrishnan takes a firm stand. He comes down hard on  anyone who violates his principles. It can be a dangerous job. He has received physical threats, but he laughs it off. “If I were to die, I would have died a long time ago. Dr Liau (Tai Leong) says I have extra nine lives: I almost died when I was rafting... a major accident, 129 stitches on my forehead and was in a coma for a while.”

Despite the tough-guy outlook — necessary when you spend time catching illegal farmers and traipsing rivers — we see glimpses of an inspiring generosity of spirit and an exemplary passion for saving his hometown.

Does he think of leaving a legacy, something he hopes to achieve in this lifetime?

“I would like to see Cameron Highlands turn into a living national park. I saw this in Wales (in Britain) when I was there, and you can do all these activities within the national park while respecting nature. Agriculture doesn’t need to expand into more land, but rather relying on technology to gain more yield. That is my dream; I would really love to see Cameron Highlands as a national park because we have so much to offer here,” he says, his boyish smile taking on a wishful, hopeful quality.

As we thank him for the help and for the hours he spent taking us on the river trail, he brushes it away. “No,” he says. “Thank you. You guys have done good work.”

No, we tell him. We are only telling the story of the work that needs to be done, and the story of people like him who actually do it.Dr Liau Tai LeongAs a newly posted health officer to Cameron Highlands in the 1980s, Dr Liau Tai Leong saw an uncommonly high rate of suicides committed by ingesting pesticide. “I can even identify which particular pesticide it is by just the smell,” he says. Two decades on, pesticides no longer waft under his nose, instead they now flow in the streams and rivers in Cameron Highlands, he laments.

We are at the Sungai Pauh campsite in the compound of the Forestry Department in Cameron Highlands, having a short chat after conducting the Community Stream Investigators (CSI) programme with Liau, the vice-president of Reach, and two volunteers, Suresh Singh and Carrol Marie Lawrence.The health of Cameron Highland’s rivers is a subject close to his heart, we learn, as it is for many of the local community. It is a common lament we hear over and over again: that the locals live so close to the water source, and yet do not have enough clean water for daily use.

There wasn’t a dull moment with Liau, Suresh and Carrol when we conducted the CSI programme at Sungai Pauh and the upper Bertam River. Netting larvae and various creepy crawlies, identifying them and explaining the significance of each creature, it is easy to assume that Liau is some sort of expert on aquatic macro invertebrates.

We later found out that his initiation to the world of vermin began in 2005, when assisting a Dutch student who was conducting a scientific study for the Saixion University in Deventer, The Netherlands. Together with the student, Antony van der Ent, Liau studied the Upper Bertam catchment area, learning about water quality testing as he went along. Liau describes his job in assisting van der Ent as a continuous process of catching and learning, and knowing where and how to catch.

Although van der Ent’s test was scientific, Liau thought it important for the public to be able to learn about what lives in our rivers. Inspired by the research experience and through information gathered on the Internet, the members and volunteers of Reach adapted a community river-testing programme that would be simple enough for anyone to conduct.

Liau, who is in charge of Reach’s community activities and promoting environmental awareness, says he has conducted the CSI programme for groups from KL, Singapore and the UK, and for many schools too. To his despair, the response from the local community has not been as encouraging.

It is refreshing to watch Liau in action, with the creepy crawlies, and also when he speaks about Cameron Highland’s environmental issues. When addressing a group of young Malaysians who visited the Reach headquarters, it is easy to see why he was chosen for the job. He speaks clearly without the pitch or tone of scientific mumbling, and has an infectious enthusiasm and energy.

The bunch of Bayer Young Environmental Envoys, who attended the talk, warmed up to him immediately; Liau does not preach to them, nor does he lecture or patronise, instead, he questions, argues and provokes them into discussing issues — a rare sight indeed in environmental education.

With his medical training, experience in river testing and involvement in community work such as Reach, his ability to gauge and engage his audience must come from having a pretty good view of the larger picture, we surmise.

This perspective is useful for his work, but also scary, he says. “I get a headache whenever I look at the water [quality]”, he confesses. From his clinic in Brinchang, Liau has seen a rise of water-borne diseases and skin diseases from chemical exposure from pesticides. “When I was a medical student, we learnt some exotic diseases in passing — such as Leptospirosis [a rare bacterial infection],” says Liau, as he ticks off the most commonly seen gastrointestinal diseases: cholera and typhoid, as well as illnesses caused by worms, Amoebiasis, viral hepatitis and even colon cancer.

Although Liau has not seen many cases of water-borne diseases caused by chemical contamination, he points out that if pesticides can kill insects, they can kill human beings too. What will happen to children in Cameron Highlands after 20 years, says Liau, is that they may have to start walking around with dialysis machines — are we really going to wait until that happens before any change is made, he asks?

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 765, July 27-Aug 2, 2009