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For peat’s sake

A JUST and fair system is what the people want, and the words “transparency” and “accountability” have been hurled at a government that seemingly does not listen.

But cases of injustice and the government seemingly allowing the perpetrators to get away with murder (figuratively speaking, of course) aren’t always as clear cut as they seem.

For peat’s sake
(© Alex Lapuerta Mediavilla / 123rf)
Having observed a fact-finding exercise to uncover the person responsible for a problem within a local community, I don’t envy the public servants tasked with getting things done while having to be transparent at the same time.

Culprits behind peat burning

Take, for instance, the smog caused by burning peat in Johan Setia, Klang, in early May 2008. The first report that came out painted it as a story about illegal immigrants burning the land for farming (seems to me illegal immigrants get blamed for everything these days).

But upon checking with half a dozen government agencies, Selangor tourism, consumer affairs and environment executive councillor Elizabeth Wong discovered that it was not a simple case of illegal immigrants being opportunistic and making a fast buck.

Firstly, the workers were probably not all illegal; Rela (People’s Volunteer Corps) officers confirmed that some of them had proper work permits (permit kebun) to work on farmland.

It was also revealed that not all the 1,512 landowners toiled their land, and more than half have left it idle, causing external contractors to bring in migrant workers to plant cash crops like sweet potato and pineapple.

The Department of Environment (DOE) acknowledges that the “slash and burn” problem has existed since the late 1990s, but attempts to bring the landowners to court in 2002 and 2007 failed due to a technicality: because a proper demarcation exercise for the area was never carried out, the DOE could not identify the owners to book.

For peat’s sake
Problems are not always straightforward, as tourism, consumer affairs and environment exco Elizabeth Wong (in black) finds out during a tour of Johan Setia in June 2008 (Pic by KW Mak)
Although the DOE hired a private firm to do the demarcation exercise, this was not accepted by the court because the proper procedure was for the Land Office to do it.

However, the Land Office could not, because payment for the work had to come from the landowners, who never undertook it since the land was supposedly given out by a former state assemblyperson in the 1980s. A farmer who was interviewed said he did not know how this came about, since he and his compatriots were “all simple folk who did not know the procedure.”

The landowners also claim that the land is freehold and that they have all the relevant documents to prove their rights, whereas the land office claims their records show the owners were only given temporary occupation licences.

Hence, because of lousy book-keeping and non-compliance of procedures in awarding land to the present owners, the government is not able to punish the landowners for the subsequent smog.

It is also difficult to nail the outsiders who hire these immigrants because the moment enforcement arrives, the migrant workers are nowhere in sight. The difficulty of catching the responsible culprits for setting fire was proven again recently, too.

Consultative process

The state engaged the Global Environment Centre to conduct a study on land management in order to prevent recurring fires. The process includes consultations with landowners to instruct them on how to manage their land. Should they fail, they risk government repossession; the land office has been instructed to carry out enforcement by issuing show-cause letters to the owners to develop the land according to their land titles (agriculture), and not leave the land idle and face having the land repossessed by the state.

There are still many grey areas within our laws that prevent the government from carrying out its administrative duties effectively. A lot needs to be done in terms of information dissemination, especially to the media, which may not have the full picture when they report.

For peat’s sake
(© Alex Lapuerta Mediavilla / 123rf)
And even before the legal loopholes are plugged, the lesson to be learnt is that the public cannot simply play the blame game by pointing fingers at one party to be punished.

Had that been done in this situation, the foreign workers would have been the victims, while the real perpetrators would have escaped to bring in a new batch of immigrant workers.

Acting without understanding all the facts only worsens an already tangled mess and leads to unnecessary frustration with the legal system. Let us not be guilty of solving a problem by creating others. End of Article

Since being made MBPJ councillor in July 2008, KW Mak now spends his leisure time reading law books and meeting the public to help solve their problems.

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One Response to “For peat’s sake”

  1. Jy says:

    Thanks for an eye-opening explanation. It is complicated and the true perpetrators often run off before enforcement officers can zoom in on them.

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