By Choo Chon Kai

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--“Why is the Perak state government so generous towards private developers but harsh in its treatment of the market gardeners in Perak?“

This was the question raised by Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, the national chairman of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) at a special press conference in the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall to expose the issues of the continual grabbing of farm land in Perak.

This land grabbing is destroying the source of income for small farmers and threatening the nation’s food security.

Jeyakumar said PSM is currently helping small vegetable farmers currently facing forced evictions in 11 areas in Perak. These areas include Kanthan, Chemor, Chepor Impian, Chepor Sentosa, Pusing, Kuala Kampar, Mambang Diawan, Sungai Bali and two areas in Tanah Hitam.

Many of these farming areas were developed by small farmers from before World War Two. These farmers initially built their homes on their farms but were required to relocate to “new villages” in the 1950s under the Briggs Plan during the ‘Emergency’. However, they were allowed to work on their farms during the day.

In 1974, the late Abdul Razak Hussein, the then Prime Minister, launched a ‘green book’ plan to increase food supply within the nation. Razak encouraged Malaysians to plant vegetables in available vacant land. The plan emphasised the use of land for farming food products, not land ownership.

So, the government back then encouraged people to start farming activities on any vacant land, even though they did not have land ownership rights, as long as they could produce food. The government machinery, including the Land Office, was directed to help and incentivise farmers to farm on empty land.

“Therefore, the accusation that farmers who do not possess land ownership rights are equivalent to land trespassers is nonsensical,” Jeyakumar said. “Whoever is saying that these small farmers are intruders is incorrect in terms of historical facts!”

Farmers applied for land but land ownership rights given to developers

The vegetable farmers behind Chemor town have been tilling their farms since the 1930s.

In the mid-1980s, the Kinta Land Office offered them leases to the land they were tilling as a part of a project to boost vegetable production.

Many of the farmers there applied to take part in that project.

Unfortunately, the project was not implemented.

Instead, the farmers in that area received a letter from a lawyer representing a company in March 2022 stating that the farmers need to vacate their farms within three months as the land now belongs to the company.

The farmers in Sungai Bali, Kuala Kuang applied several times for temporary occupation licences (TOL) from the Land Office in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were not given approval.

Instead, that land was given to another company, a developer from Kuala Lumpur. This company dragged the farmers to court by filing an application for Order 89 of the Rules of Court to clear the land.

But that action was defeated by the farmers’ lawyers.

Currently, the developer company has filed a writ summons, and the case is ongoing in the Ipoh High Court.

From the evidence revealed in the press conference, it should be clear the accusations that these small farmers want to use the land for free and do not want to pay rent are absolutely untrue. These small farmers, from early on, were prepared to pay the government rental or land tax.

But in most cases, the Land Office did not want to approve their applications, but instead awarded land ownership to a third party which had never used the land before.

The government itself broke promises

In the case of the Kanthan area in Chemor, the Perak State Economic Development Corporation (PKNP) was awarded ownership rights for an area covering 3,350 acres.

Initially, in 2021, PKNP offered land leases for 30 years to the 132 farmers tilling 1,200 acres on that site. The offer was attractive, as PKNP was then prepared to allow the farmers to continue cultivating the farms they had established decades earlier and pay a rental based on the size of the land.

Almost all the Kanthan farmers accepted the offer and even signed the agreement documents.

However, PKNP did not follow through with that offer.

Because PKNP was apparently delaying the offer process, 14 Kanthan farmers filed a suit in the Ipoh High Court to get a court order requiring PKNP to award them the land lease as promised.

A consent agreement was achieved, in which the farmers were given permission to continue their farming activities on that land, with an assurance that replacement land would have to be provided to them if they were required to vacate their current farms in the future.

Then in May 2021, PKNP and the Land and Mining Office offered 41 farmers in Kanthan an alternative site with a lot size of two acres for each farmer, and they were told to vacate their farms within a month.

Upon visiting the alternative site, the farmers discovered that the replacement land was on a hilly area and did not have sufficient water supply. Hence, it was not conducive for planting vegetables.

Apart from that, the village residents had fish ponds at the base of the hills, hence posing a risk of fish-poisoning from the fertilisers and pesticides that the farmers would use if they farmed there.

The farmers gave their feedback through a letter to PKNP to request clarification and further discussion regarding the issues they brought up.

However, PKNP did not provide any answers nor did they contact the farmers for discussion. Instead, in December 2021, they sent a lawyer’s letter threatening to evict them.

“This shows the highly arrogant behaviour of PKNP,” Jeyakumar said. “PKNP perceives itself as the boss and refuses to engage in discussions with the farmers, and is prepared to evict them by force.”

TOL given but later rescinded

In the case of Tanah Hitam, 14 farmers who tilled the land next to Kampung Baru Tanah Hitam were requested to vacate their land in 2001 because that land had been awarded to a private developer.

These farmers pleaded to the then Perak Menteri Besar, Tajol Rosli, and he approved the TOL for one-acre plots of land for each of the affected farmers on the slope of a hill next to their original location.

Because that new approved area was not conducive for planting vegetables, the farmers switched to planting oil palm, and they paid for the TOL each year.

However, after a few years, the Land Office refused to accept TOL payments from these farmers.

A few years later, that land was alienated to a private developer company.

The farmers duly received letters from that company’s lawyer requesting them to clear that land.

Suspicion of irregularities  

In handling these issues of evictions faced by farmers from different areas, PSM has come across suspicious elements in some cases.

For example, in the case involving land next to Taman Chepor Sentosa, PKNP sold land measuring 48 acres for RM4.8m to Company A on 2 March 2020.

The next day, 3 March, Company A sold that land to Company B, a housing developer for RM5.8m. Apart from the RM1m quick money acquired by Company A, the strange thing in this land deal is that the actual value for that 48-acre land is about RM15m.

“Why did PKNP sell land with a market value of about RM15m for only RM4.8m? Why was PKNP so generous to this private developer?” Jeyakumar said. “You give land to a developer with such a big discount and then you want to chase out the farmers who are producing vegetables for our population.

“Another thing is, if you want to sell that land, why sell it in two stages, whereby the first company which bought the land can then sell it within a day’s time to another company to get a profit of RM1m?

“This is an example of how the land in Perak is being mismanaged by state GLCs. Are the powers given to PKNP, a government-linked corporation (GLC), being utilised for the benefit of the general population of Perak?” Jeyakumar said. “Is there abuse of power?”

The farmers in Pusing area who are facing eviction proceedings discovered that the 103 acres of land they had been cultivating for 50 years had been, in August 2017, “gifted” by the government to a company owned by a tycoon from Kuala Lumpur.

The company then sold the land in December 2017 to two other individuals for an advance payment of RM2.5m. If that advance payment is equivalent to 10% of the actual selling price, in line with normal practice, then the value of that land is RM25m.

“The question here is, why was [the company] gifted land worth RM25m just like that when there were 14 farmers actively farming on that land? What was the contribution of [the tycoon] that justifies such a generous present from the Perak state government? We need an explanation regarding this,” Jeyakumar said.

“We have made a complaint about these cases at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Maybe the private developer company had previously made some major contribution to the Perak community and thus deserves such a generous award. But we do not know.

“This needs to be investigated. If there is a good reason, then there is no issue. But if there is no good reason, then what actually happened? You (the state authorities) have been entrusted to take care of state land, but why sell that land for such low prices or give it for free?” Jeyakumar added.

Not a question of race

Responding to the perceptions of certain people who view the small farmers’ issue through a racial lens, Jeyakumar said, “In the eviction case in Chepor Sentosa, those who faced eviction were ethnically Chinese small farmers, but the private development company which received a huge discount in the purchase of that land was also Chinese.

“How has the Malay marhaen benefited when small Chinese farmers are dispossessed and their land is handed over to rich Chinese businessmen? This maybe can help enrich the few Malays who approved this alienation, but it definitely does not help the poor Malays.

“Those receiving the benefits are only the upper elite class, that is the elite class controlling the land and the elite class planning on developing the land for profit. Those in the elite class help themselves, but the lower classes are the ones who suffer. So, this is not an ethnic issue.”

Jeyakumar also showed that the land lots cultivated by small farmers in Perak are actually not big. From the survey conducted by PKNP on the 132 farmers who farmed the Kanthan area, one third were on plots of less than four acres, while another third cultivated land measuring between four to seven acres.

Only a third of these farmers cultivated land more than seven acres, and only 2 percent of them cultivated land bigger than 10 acres.

Therefore, most of the farmers are not wealthy big-time farmers. They have worked hard to develop their land and have grown food for the country. They are decent people engaged in an honourable occupation. They are not criminals who are destroying the country.

The narrative propagated by some people that these small farmers are selfish and rich, and trespassers on government land is one that enables the process of dispossessing these farmers to generate quick returns for the economic and political elite.

This narrative is not only racist, but more importantly, it greatly helps those who are looking to generate quick returns for themselves from alienating government land to developers.

Not just a farmers’ issue – but a problem for all Malaysians

According to Jeyakumar, about 25 percent of land in Malaysia, equivalent to eight million hectares, is used for agricultural purposes. Of that amount, oil palm plantations take up 5.5 million hectares and rubber about one million hectares, resulting in over 80 percent of agricultural land being used for commodity production.

Another 0.7 million hectares of land is used for paddy cultivation. Only 0.8 million hectares (10 percent of all agricultural land) is used for all other crops – pepper, cocoa, coconut, orchards and vegetables – as well as animal husbandry and the rearing of fresh-water fish.

Thus, the amount of land used to grow vegetables is tiny – probably about 5 percent of total agricultural land in Malaysia – but now even this meagre land is being grabbed by the state and destroyed by developers.

“So, this is not only a problem for the farmers. It is related to food security for the people all over our country,” Jeyakumar said. “If we let the authorities continue grabbing land and destroy our capacity to produce vegetables for ourselves, what will happen in the future?

“Will we need to import all our food? We are already spending RM60bn a year on food imports. If our currency value drops, food prices will increase drastically. If the climate crisis worsens, we will face the problem of food shortages.”

Farmers’ demands

The Perak farmers have listed their demands as follows:

Maintain all agricultural land which produces food. Do not evict farmers by force.

-Give land leases for 10-20 years to small farmers. Establish conditions that if the leased land is not cultivated for two years, the government can cancel the lease and offer it to another farmer. Small farmers are not requesting permanent land ownership rights; they just want assurances to allow them to continue their agricultural activities without the threat of eviction.

-Use plantation land for housing and industrial purposes. Do not disrupt land that is used for food production

-The standard operating procedures of the Perak state government regarding land alienation have to be amended to protect small farmers who are cultivating food products

-Establish a check-and-balance mechanism for the process of land alienation. Establish a committee which has veto powers to stop land alienation if it adversely affects poor communities or reduces food production

-The Perak farmers submitted their demands to the Perak state government in September 2021 and requested a discussion regarding these suggestions. However, they have not yet received any invitation for a discussion with the authorities until now.

Therefore, PSM and the Perak farmers have decided to bring this issue to the attention of the public to mobilise general opinion and apply pressure on the authorities to do the right thing.

“The land being used for food production should not be sold off by certain parties to reap huge profits,” Jeyakumar said. “It appears that some key people in the land administration system see this as a way to get quick returns. We need to amend the existing laws.

“Malaysians have to champion the changing of these laws together with the farmers. If we remain silent, this will result in severe consequences for our future. The people have to realise that if the farmers continue to be evicted from the land they are cultivating, Malaysians will not have enough food in the future!”

*Choo Chon Kai is an activist with the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).*