THE stall at the Air Itam market in Penang is said to offer the best asam laksa in Malaysia.
Rain or shine, it pulls in the crowd.
The ingredients for the dish such as ginger bud (bunga kantan), mint leaves (daun pudina), laksa leaves (daun kesum) and kalamansi limes (limau kasturi) come from Penang Hill, which is less than 200m away.
Farmers who cultivate the land at the hillslope sell their produce at the wet markets on the island.
The fertile hillslope from Air Itam to Paya Terubong is cultivated with vegetables and fruits.
Demand for the produce is so great that farmers are illegally clearing the hillslope to expand their farms.
About 2km from the market along Jalan Paya Terubong, there is a trail leading to a hillslope.
Lately, hikers and mountain bike enthusiasts have been using the trail to reach the 135-year-old Cheng Kon Tse Temple, nestled on the slope of the hill.
Travellers can see vegetable farms and fruit trees on both sides of the trail.
There are nutmeg trees, kalamansi lime trees, papaya and banana trees.
The vegetables include lemon grass, lady fingers and sweet potato.
As one continues walking up, a large swathe of hillslope which had been cleared near the telecommunication towers comes into view.
The bald patch can be seen from the Paya Terubong road below.
The slopes on Penang Hill have been cleared by farmers over the past few decades.
Such illegal hillslope clearing has been raised by environmental groups but there has been no firm action from the authorities.
A former Penang Island City Councillor claimed that he had provided pictures of the clearings to state leaders and that he had also raised the matter with the Consumers Association of Penang and Malaysian Nature Society.
“The press should continue to highlight the issue so that something is done finally,” said the former councillor who did not want to be identified for fear that the farmers might go after him.
“Penang Hill is our heritage. But no one seems to bother,” he said.
Besides Penang Hill, bald patches are also appearing on hills in several parts of the island.
Bukit Relau in Jalan Bukit Gambier has been dubbed “botak hill”.
There is also hill clearance in Bukit Kukus in Paya Terubong and Bukit Laksamana, a water catchment for the Teluk Bahang Dam.
More and more hillslopes are going bald because of developers and contractors who cleared the land without the authorities’ approval.
The clearings are done on weekends and smoke can be seen from far when the trees are burnt.
A large swathe of land has also been cleared at a place referred by hikers as level 45 station.
It should not be difficult to nab the culprits since there are cemented trails all over the hillslopes in Air Itam and Paya Terubong.
When The Star reported on Feb 14 last year that more bald spots could be seen, a state exco member said they had pictures of the illegal activity and that action would be taken against the culprits but till now, no one knows what the action is.
It is troubling that all this is happening under a state government which emphasises on Competency, Accountability and Transparency.
Penang Hill seems to be losing its charm.
Yet, the state government seems to be focused on mega projects and land reclamation.
At a state assembly sitting last month, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said the Penang Island City Council was using drones to check on illegal hill clearing and CCTVs would be installed next year to monitor illegal earthworks.
The spate of hill clearings has prompted the Penang Forum, a coalition of public interest NGOs, to hold a forum on Save the Hills of Penang tomorrow.
Hopefully, the outcome from the event will reach the right ears.
There is a compelling need to save the hills from greedy farmers and developers.
Comment by K. Suthakdar
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