Shouldn’t we be more concerned about our vegetable farmers?

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Every few weeks we will see a brief mention in the media about a small group of farmers being evicted from the government land that they had been tilling for years, sometimes generations. And most of us shrug it off – “Poor fellows, but that’s how the world is,” we might think to ourselves. We then continue with our usual activities. But is this the right attitude? Should we not be more concerned about the source of food for future generations of Malaysians?

At this point in time, about 80% of the vegetables that are produced in Malaysia are cultivated on government land by small farmers. Some of them, like the 8 farmers near Taman Chepor Sentosa, Kuala Kuang, Perak who are currently facing eviction, are tilling farms that were pioneered by their parents or grandparents since before independence. Other market gardeners are occupying ex tin mining land which they have managed to rehabilitate. They do not have grants to the land they are tilling though quite a number of them have applied. But they have a wealth of experience in managing their small farms and they ensure a regular supply of fresh vegetables and fruits to our local markets.

This community of market gardeners are at risk of eviction. Much of the land they are cultivating has been alienated to State level GLCs. In the case of the Taman Chepor Sentosa farmers (TCS farmers), the PKNP (Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Perak – with the MB as the Chairman of the Board of Directors) was given 1000 acres of prime farming land occupied by close to 300 farmers including the TCS eight. PKNP has sold of portions of this land to private housing developers. The 45 acres tilled by the TCS farmers was sold a few years back to KM Majubina, a housing developer. The Kee family, the owners of KM Majubina, are now using strong-arm tactics to summarily evict the 8 farmers. We are helping the TCS farmers resist summary eviction and with a bit of luck we will succeed, but that will be only a temporary respite. If the Kee family files the proper application in court, they will eventually obtain a court order to evict the TCS farmers. This is not the fault of our judges. The weakness is in the National Land Code which gives too much weight to the possessor of the land title and too little to the prior occupants of that land.

The problem with land alienation and the awarding of logging concessions in Malaysia is that it is influenced much more by the short-term interests of the Menteri Besar (MB) than by the long term requirements of the people of that state. As land is a state matter, it the sitting MB in each state who controls the land alienation process. The kick-backs received from land alienation and awarding of logging licenses are an important source of political funding for the MB, his party and his faction within the party. As such, longer term considerations such as food security, the preservation of biodiversity and water catchment areas are not given the importance that they deserve and many bad decisions are made.

The PSM and a group of farming communities in Perak recently launched a campaign to protect food-farmers. We are asking the Perak State government to identify the market gardeners tilling state land and designate all these areas as permanent food producing agricultural land. We want the State to enter into long term (10 to 20 year) lease agreements with the vegetable farmers so that they have confidence in tenure and can invest in upgrading their farms. The lease agreement should stipulate that if any farmer is not interested in continuing with farming, he will have to surrender the land back to the government which can then lease it out to another person who is prepared to produce food crops. The campaign also calls for the setting up of a state-level committee that can vet and if necessary, veto land alienation and logging license decisions made by the MB.

Unfortunately, many in the corridors of power would like the present system to continue. It is an important source of funds for them. The campaign to ensure a more enlightened policy regarding land-use will only succeed if it gets strong support from the general public. Could you play a part in popularizing this campaign?

Jeyakumar Devaraj
Chairperson
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

29/4/2021

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