The jungle is neutral

Bug your local representative when you see crimes against nature

AS CHILDREN, we used to be able to compartmentalise what we see.

A carpet of perfectly cut grass under the shade of the frangipani would, in my left-side dominant brain, be an island of the South Seas much like what I visualise from countless, reading and re-readings of James A Michener’s description of paradise a world away from my corner of the world in Muar. 

Looking south from the rooftop of the government-quarters where we used to live on Jalan Daud, I would catch fleeting glimpses of another sun-drenched rooftop some distance away. Framed by the guava trees that marked the boundary of our yard, that vision would immediately transport me to the lapping waters of Venice that I saw in the full-page cigarette advertisements in “Life” magazines. 

In a world before smart phones or Instagram, our brains fill the gaps as we read about faraway places in “Return to Paradise”, or the lives that happen beyond the frame of the 10-inch black and white television when Rin-TinTin saves another day for the US cavalry. 

Years later, by way of work and leisure, I have had the privilege of visiting these two places. And yes, they turned out to be exactly as I had pictured them, no doubt due to the magic that our brain has to fit our experiences to our memories. 

These mental exercises has led me over the years to enjoy the outside. I am happy to be drenched in the rain riding my bicycle, or mucking about in the middle of the Taman Negara reserve. It’s not in the walking to the North Pole category of adventure, but it is enough for me. 

These were the thoughts that emerged as I read about the last remaining soul still unaccounted for in the Batang Kali landslide tragedy, which has so far killed 30 people who were just enjoying nature, camping on a beautiful farm. 

Even as hundreds of tireless rescuers work to recover the young boy, I remember some people openly mocked the victims for choosing to be close to nature during the rainy season. Those voices have died down after being roundly and rightly condemned, but there must be a genuine curiosity why some people choose nature, rain or shine, over the concrete comforts of home and food delivered to your door convenience. 

The answer is as numerous as the numbers of stars on a clear night, but one thing is common reason in that being close to nature is an instinct that some are willing to connect. It could be climbing Kinabalu, or it could just be a night under the stars in a tent. 

The Father’s Organic Farm, the site of the landslide, was one of those well-run campsites that people enjoy enough to return more than once. On one of these visits, I saw the collection of tents jostling for position amongst the neat rows of plants. As it is wont in the hills, the sun set quickly with dispatch. 

It was going to be a cool night as usual. Camper families sitting down to dinner with much laughing. There was a homely kampungfeast woodsmoke scent coming from a campfire somewhere. 

Nothing particularly sinister was on view, unless you count the exposed red earth and the vertigo-inducing sight of the hanging farms cut into the sides of the steep hills surrounding the area. 

Some of these farms defy gravity and leave you wondering how do they grow, let alone harvest the produce. Do they employ mountain goats? Then you notice all the building that has taken place too. 

The fact that these developments exist, and have existed for so long unchecked and probably unregulated in hilly areas like Batang Kali, Cameron Highlands and elsewhere, is a testimony that we are lethargic when it comes to protecting our environment. Yes, “we” as in every single one of us. 

When we see naked red soil sprout like sores against the green hill tops, from Perlis to Sabah, we tut-tutted and went on with our lives disturbed, but not willing to collectively do something about it. 

It’s all good until a landslide lands on 100 people. Then we hope to see something done about the unchecked rape of our hills. 

Nature is never totally safe and being out on it is inherently risky and dangerous. But while we expect to be confronted by potential fatal incidents like snakebites or falling off a tree, a landslide on a campsite is way beyond our normal danger checklist. 

Unfortunately this happens many times in industries that they have a name for it. In the transport industry it is called tombstone technology. Meaning some new technology or legislation is introduced after some people died because of some overlooked factor. That was how seatbelts was introduced. 

Landslides and floods have been with us for a long time and periodically people die, but, like all those fatal accidents caused by public transport drivers with multiple road summons and attributed to “brake failure”, no real technology or the will to do something concrete about it has emerged. 

So, this is the thought I have for this end of 2022. In the new “can do” spirit being demonstrated by the MPs and Ministers, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, bug your local representative when you see crimes against nature. Join an environmental group today and bring your own containers when you shop. 

  • ZB Othman is an editor at The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition