The changing landscape of Janda Baik

An article produced from the HSBC-Wild Asia Responsible Journalists Programme held in Janda Baik, Pahang, in Oct 2010.

A view of the misty Banjaran Titiwangsa from Janda Baik in the early morning

If Janda Baik was your home, you would wake up each morning surrounded by forest. In the distance, you’d hear the clear Sungai Benus rushing against cold rocks. In the distance, the Banjaran Titiwangsa spreads before your eyes, the great shadows veiled by mists. Often, you might see a flock of hornbills flying across the horizon.

This was Janda Baik before the 1990s. It is the home of Fred Suriya, a French woman who has lived herefor the past ten years after she married a local. Fred laments that this highland is but a dim shadow of its past. Unmonitored development is rapidly taking over the place – stripping its natural heritage as the days go by. Now, you will hear the rattling of tractors as they clear the forest. The sound of rushing water  is replaced by silent ripples in a shallowed-out river. Rubbish from urban picnickers dot the roadside, filling the air with decomposing waste. And only if you are lucky would you catch the silhouette of a lone hornbill, perched on a tall but leafless tree in the unreachable distance.

Village between the rivers

A drying river

Janda Baik is a comparatively lesser-known area of Bentong in Pahang which is located about a half-hour’s drive from Bukit Tinggi. Nestled between two rivers, Sungai Sum Sum and Sungai Benus, Janda Baik consists of five villages. They are Kampung Janda Baik, Kampung Sum Sum, Kampung Hulu Lurau and Kampung Chempuruh, which is where the indigenous people, the Temuan Belanda, live.

Famed for its biodiversity, it is said that Janda Baik was home to a high diversity of birds such as the majestic hornbills; wildlife such as pangolins, deer, slow Loris, civet cats and monkeys. In the past, pristine rivers – Sungai Benus being the main tributary – teemed with fishes. The local community, consisting mostly of the Temuan Belanda and Malays, used to be self-sustainable. They derived their food from the forest, from subsistence farming or forest produce harvesting or hunting or fishing.

Land for second homes

Janda Baik was first explored in the early 1970s for farming and logging, some of which have likely been illegal. Since the 1990s, real estate has been the crowd-puller for the rich who want a home away from the city. Janda Baik is promoted as a premier location for private estates in the middle of a pristine forest. Developers, such as Tanah Rimba by Sitrac Corporation, widely promoted Janda Baik as the destination for a second home tucked away in a haven of untouched nature. The houses built by the architects at Tanah Rimba were designed to blend in with the natural environment and have won various awards.

This is not the case for land sold to private individuals. Alwin Din, who used to be a staff at Tanah Rimba, says, “What used to be virgin forests were usually cleared to the ground for construction. Then, juvenile trees would be replanted in the yard as part of the landscaping feature.” As a local of Janda Baik, Alwin is concerned about the direction of development and construction taking place in the area.

One of the pieces of land in Janda Baik that has been cleared to make way for the construction of a new home

Where draws the line?

This is not the case for Saat Awanga, 60, who has lived in Kampung Janda Baik all his life. “It is good for Janda Baik to be developed. It stimulates the economy and generates income for the locals here. We’ll also have more infrastructure,” he opines. A single man, Saat owns a fruit orchard and sells his produce to the local market or those in Bukit Tinggi and Kuala Lumpur. Although most of his relatives have moved to more developed areas like Gombak and Kuala Lumpur, he has found no reason to leave and thinks development should come to Janda Baik instead.

Local ecotourism operators, however, have a differing opinion, albeit not opposing, about development in Janda Baik. “As a local resident and an ecotourism operator, we are not against development as long as it is done in a sustainable manner. Throughout the history of Janda Baik, there has been very little display of such (sustainability) and hence, the environment has been degrading,” says Alwin. Growing up in Janda Baik, he remembers the forest and highlands of his youth when his family would hunt and fish for food. The air was crisper and the temperature lower. With depleting forest coverage, the biodiversity of birds and wildlife have also been diminishing.

If the development in Janda Baik continues without monitoring and control, the highland may be at risk from irreversible degradation. Alwin fears that the rich natural resources and the river for which Janda Baik is known for may just be something we remember from the past. Already, locals are noticing signs of a changing landscape. Will these changes be for Janda Baik’s good or detriment?