By Mariam Mokhtar
By now, you will doubtless have heard about the eviction of Amy Tan, her husband, Vladislav Kuta, and three young children, from their farmstay in the hills overlooking Lenggong.
When her story was first reported, many Malaysians were furious with the decision by the Perak State Development Corporation (PKNP).
Amy’s desire to invest in her own country, work on the land, invite others to share her experience of being close to mother nature, teach them about sustainable living, how to respect the jungle and its many treasures, has not gone unnoticed. She receives many visitors, academics and schoolchildren, both locally and from abroad.
Her farmstay has been featured in the National Geographic documentary, produced in 2016 called, “Living Free with Kimi Werner”. Her energy needs are from solar energy. Her water is from the jungle streams, and food is sourced from her farm.
Days after the news of Amy’s eviction, the CEO of PKNP arranged to meet Amy and for the first time in a decade, she has been able to discuss her proposals, which include collaboration with local community colleges so that graduates in tourism can be offered employment.
Although she trained as an accountant and has been for the past decade, a Rolfing physical therapist for people with chronic and acute musculoskeletal pain, both she and Vladislav embarked on a sustainable living project, which would serve as an educational experience where people can gain hands-on skills on true sustainable living.
The farmstay is located at the former Lenggong Tea plantation, which was a joint venture between the Perak state government and ‘Tate and Lyle’, in the 1980s. At its peak, some ten years after it started operations, Harrods of London, stocked Lenggong grown tea. When PKNP turfed out the English company, the usual story of mismanagement and pilfering of stock caused the company to go bankrupt, within two years.
Soon after Amy occupied her land, PKNP ignored her complaints about squatters on her parcel of land. She also had issues with a timber company on an adjoining piece of land, which had trespassed onto their property and destroyed their crops. This timber company caused localised problems such as landslides, pollution of the pristine streams with silt and herbicides. The company destroyed the rich biodiversity of the jungle, which in turn threatened many species of birds and animals as they thrive on the jungle’s flora and fauna.
Amy also sent a report to SUHAKAM to warn about the problems with watershed management, as the plywood project was being carried out on steep hill slopes in a water catchment area.
Despite her request for the PKNP to remove the squatters and deal with the timber company, no action was taken. Instead, PKNP accused them of not paying their rent and took them to court.
When Amy paid the rent, including backdated rentals, her money was returned without any explanation. Her previous attempts, in the past eight years, to meet PKNP officials were unsuccessful until her predicament and eviction were highlighted in the papers last week.
Amy and her husband grow mainly tropical and medicinal herbs, and fruit trees for consumption by them and their guests. They are inspired by nature being a natural pharmacy and they keep the land mostly wild and untouched.
They have no workers because of the constant threat of eviction. They do all the work of looking after the farm and taking care of their guests themselves with the occasional help from volunteers.
Both Amy and the residents of Lenggong are proud of what the area has to offer, but they are disappointed at the lack of response from the state authorities.
Her farmstay is one of the few accommodation options for visitors to Lenggong and she said, “Despite its UNESCO Heritage statues, since 2013, the lack of infrastructure has delayed any form of success in the tourism industry.”
She knows that the true potential of Lenggong as a tourism destination is untapped and told the State Tourism Exco about the transport challenges, poor connections to big cities, the lack of facilities and the general recommendations based on their interaction with tourists. She would like to promote tourism by linking up all the providers of accommodation and activities in Lenggong.
As an example, she said that tourists who arrive at Lenggong by bus cannot visit the archaeological museum, 5km away because there is no public transport.
More importantly, Amy’s story is about a Malaysian who is prepared to work hard in promoting sustainable living, protection of the environment and being independent. It is also a story about true grit and determination to succeed.
Despite being featured in National Geographic and been praised by academics, it is her courage in bringing up a young family, while living close to nature, away from the attractions and pollution of the city, that is equally commendable.
On the flip side, it is the story of bureaucrats in PKNP dismissing her request to deal with the squatters, ignoring her plea to meet and discuss her proposals and issues. Her family was intimidated by visits from the police when rumours were circulated that she was involved in illegal jungle activities. It is also the story about big business harassing her and her family in an attempt to make her leave the farmstay.
It cannot be easy for Amy and Vladislav to commit all their effort, energy and money to make their project work, in a short-term lease of government-owned land, when the fruits of their labour may take years to yield a harvest.
Nevertheless, their farmstay has proven to be a success and helps contribute towards the tourist trade. They also interact with local kampung farmers and share their knowledge of plants/crops.
The CEO of PKNP is aware of the huge contribution that Amy can make towards the development of tourism, education in biodiversity and preservation of the environment.
Will the Tourism exco, Tan Kar Hing, be convinced? Can he see the benefits and true worth of Amy’s project?