Updated: Apr 5
Wanting to escape the sticky heat of Kuala Lumpur? The Cameron Highlands are a top tourist spot for travellers weary of the humidity, and one of the most common stops in the travel path of Malaysia. I can confirm, there is a real charm to being cosy by a fire and wearing jeans after months of the humid rainforests of Asia. However, there is a dark side to The Cameron Highlands, and it is largely the fault of the tourism developing there. Agribusiness has been rapidly set up to meet demand for tourist indulgances- namely strawberries and honey. Huge expanses of dense, old growth rainforest have been cleared to make way for huge plastic greenhouses to grow fruit and vegetables, for tourists. Not only is this detrimental in terms of land clearance, but these hilly areas that gets a lot of rainfall, are experiencing huge levels of soil run off. So, here are my five top tips for keeping it eco when enjoying the cool of The Cameron Highlands. With ecotourism, there is hope!
1) Skip the Strawberry farms. The agriculture that has very rapidly developed on ecologically sensitive areas of Highland forest, have already done enormous amounts of damage. This includes deforestation of huge tracts of cloud rainforest, unstabilising soil causing run off and landslides and wash off of huge amounts of pesticides. These chemicals are not only an issue to The Cameron Highlands region but to the lowland areas, dependant on the water for drinking. The plastic sheeting that is rapidly erected above recently chopped forest, is ugly and a short unsustainable solutions, for growing delicates crops in a tropical forest.
We were given a strawberry in our afternoon tea, and lets face it, they're unripe and gross anyway. Save your strawberry eating for a proper sun ripened local British berry straight off the bush in June. In the picture below you can see the stunning, lush green Tea Plantations. But hidden in the back ground, just visible is the start of a strawberry farm. These plastic greenhouses are largely hidden away from public view, so even though you might not always see them, doesn't mean they are not there.
2) Skip the honey farms. Whilst in other parts of the world, native honey production has proved an enormously successful eco friendly development option, in The Cameron Highlands, its sadly not so straight forward. The honey bees that have been introduced to meet tourist demands, are outcompeting the local bees, adapted and endemic to the Highlands.
3) Produce no plastic, or take your trash! Plastic is a plague all over our planet, but in fragile upland ecosystems, they are extremely hard to manage. Visiting the Cameron Highlands is the perfect time to take your ecosoaps, reusable straws and canvas bags. Don't add to the plastic plight.
4) Go for a Hike (an eco hike that is). One of the best ways to support nature tourism in the highlands, is to vote with your feet and go enjoy the stunning natural beauty of the highlands. There are unbelievable hidden secrets in the vegetation, and if you visit with a eco tour guide, it will be one of the most interesting things you'll do! Tour guides, who protect the forest will also show you the incredible secrets, including the carnivorous plants hidden in the understory!!
5) Take the bus. The roads up to the Cameron Highlands are windy AF. We piled into a car and headed up for a few nights of work/ hiking. It was totally unnecessary and to be honest, a bit of a hairy drive. Bus drivers do these trips daily and know the road. Not only is the bus obviously the most eco-friendly option, it's ALOT cheaper, safer and prevents huge influx of unnecessary car traffic up the tiny windy mountain roads. Hotels in The Cameron Highlands all have lists of great hiking tracks, so hit these up and walk once there!
6) Boh Tea Plantations. Yes, they are monocultures of tea, that required the deforestation of huge tracts of ancient forest.
HOWEVER, under closer inspection you will notice that the plantations have been historically very well managed environmentally. The tips of each hill are left entirely naturally forested. This reduces precious soil run off with the huge and regular downpours. The tea fields are also patched inbetween areas of Forest. The tea plantations are actually also a huge local employer and many of the trees are hundreds of years old and the micro trunks even have their own ecosystems! There is no expansion of the plantations, and they require very little fertilisation or pesticides (check out the paper below for more insight!)
I'll leave this one up to you. My gut feeling, is that it is better to support the Tea Plantations and the good environmental stewardardship that they are currently managed with, along with the hand picked tea (no machines, heaps of local employment and the very best quality tea) than the extremely highly destructive strawberry farms.
If you do decide to visit, enjoy a locally grown and processed tea in the Boh Tea Plantations, just take it black to enjoy the taste and take it from me, skip the cream tea!
If you are interested in more of the science & an insight into the problems facing the environment and the local people in The Cameron Highlands, I thoroughly recommend reading the following article, here's the reference and abstract to wet your appetite:
Sustainable Development in the Cameron Highlands, Barrow, C & Clifton, J & Chan, Ngai Weng & , Tan. (2005). Malaysia. 6. 41-57. http://journalarticle.ukm.my/2290
"This paper examines the progress and prospects for sustainable development in the Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia, focusing especially on agriculture. Vegetable, flower and fruit production in the Highlands have caused extensive forest clearance and the excavation of valley sides and floors. This causes loss of biodiversity, unstable ground that is liable to landslide, soil erosion and agrochemical pollution of streams. Unsustainable agriculture has severe impacts on the Cameron Highlands environment, wildlife, tourism, and local people's well being, and its effects are felt further afield, especially through the degradation of quality and quantity of water supplies which flow to surrounding lowlands. The silting of streams and reservoirs also increases the risk of flood damage. Because impacts will be felt across broad swathes of the lowlands it is in the interests of the federal government and surrounding states to invest in Cameron Highlands improvements. The new highway from Ipoh, opened in 2003, is likely to prompt further horticultural development in once remote parts of the Cameron Highlands. There are opportunities to develop sustainable agriculture and to integrate it with tourism development and the improvement of local people's livelihoods, including indigenous peoples. These opportunities should be grasped before it is too late."