Perak farmers worry about their future and livelihood

SUNGAI SIPUT, Malaysia - Alex Liew has worked on a small patch of land in Sungai Siput for most of his life. He grows mainly sweetcorn - Sungai Siput's corn is known for its juicy, milky kernels and fresh texture.

He and 293 other farmers share 1290 acres of farmland - about four acres each - on which sawi, groundnuts, water chestnut, corn and other vegetables are also cultivated.

The tall, broad-shouldered Liew has worked on the land for most of his life, inheriting it from his father.

"We have worked on this land for three generations, we have maintained it all this time," he said.

Although Liew's family were able to toil on the land undisturbed, times have changed.

Now farmers must protect the land their families have farmed on since British rule against the march of what is, ostensibly, progress.

Of the 293 farmers, half are being turfed out of the land to make way for a high-tech agriculture park.

According to Tan Tean Chee, head of the Chemor Farmers Association, over 100 farmers have been offered land on a nearby hill as compensation.

"But this land is too steep - above 25 degrees. No vegetables can be planted, only sawit (palm oil) or getah (rubber)," he told The Star.

The hill, Tan added, is a mere 395.5 acres, meaning each farmer will have one to two acres fewer than before.

Moving to the hill will make it even harder for these farmers to earn a living, due to the price of sawit and getah.

"The price is so low, we will make maybe RM200 (S$76.30) per acre," said Tan.

Right now, the farmers can eke out a living of about RM1,500 to RM2,000 monthly by selling their produce.

"Have you tried the corn in Cameron Highlands?" joked Tan. "It's from here."

Tan claims, the state government has still not taken any steps to clear the hill so it can be used for agricultural purposes, despite promising to do so before the general elections.

The remaining farmers located on the original site are currently in talks to lease their plots of land from the state government.

But the agreement with the state government originally stipulated a 30-year rental during which the government could reclaim the land at any point.

"We negotiated, we said no, and the agreement was amended," said Tan.

Currently, only 13 people have signed the agreement, but nothing further has transpired. The farmers want livelihoods, they say, not settlements.

Tan, 51, is no stranger to the land grabs, which affect farmers across Sungai Siput.

"I used to plant veggies on a plot located on 60 acres of land. The government evicted me four times!"

Finally Tan took a settlement and opened up a shop selling fertiliser and other farming supplies.

However, according to Tan, the land he was forced to abandon is still unused.

A visit to the site by The Star showed the site was now overgrown with weeds and used as a makeshift dumping ground, with old furniture and rubbish littered about.

"This was several years ago and its still empty now," Tan said.

It's not just vegetable farmers who have to play games of cat-and-mouse with the state government.

Fish farmers, too, are seeking for ways to maintain their livelihoods against the onslaught of progress and development.

Chai Weng Hong, 33, breeds arowana fish. In good months, he can make about RM5,000 with which he supports his family of five. Usually though, he draws in around RM3,000 monthly.

For several months he has been embroiled in land issues regarding the 15 acres of land upon which his breeding ponds are located.

Despite buying the land for RM30,000, he has still not received the title from the land office.

He has built an extensive piping system with which he draws water from the hills for a further RM70,000.

Even after paying through the nose to maintain his livelihood, Chai struggles constantly to make ends meet.

Due to threats from the authorities, he claims, he now only has two acres of land.

Chai claims that previously, his lands were given to a government-linked company for a luxury housing project-houses worth a quarter of a million ringgit.

"Technically my being here is still illegal," he said.

Chow Choong King, 35, rears tilapia on 27 acres of land. He has been there for six years. Although he officially applied for the land in 2008, it wasn't approved.

"The threat of eviction is very present. People also sometimes steal my fish - there's no subsidies or support for fish farmers like me," said Chow.

This was echoed by Liew, who said he and 200 other farming families had only received a subsidy from the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry last year.

"In three generations, this is the first time we received the RM400 per acre subsidy, coinciding with the elections," he added.