PETALING JAYA (The Star/Asia News Network) - Some 100ha of land - about the size of 120 football fields - has been converted into a durian orchard in the permanent Sungai Brok forest reserve near the environmentally sensitive area of the Lojing Highlands.
This conversion is the latest in what critics have called blatant attempts by both the Kelantan government and companies to carve out areas of forests near the Central Spine Area, which is important for the country's water reserves and the climate.
Already, the river basin of Sungai Belatop, an important water catchment area in the forest reserve, has been shown to be heavily polluted with sedimentation and heavy metals with pesticide residue from nearby farming.
Drastic changes in land use in the river basin, especially for vegetable farming and monoculture over the past years, have also affected nearby orang asli settlements, which largely depend on the river for their daily needs.
The Kelantan Mentri Besar, who also chairs the state forestry sub-committee, has agreed to an application by a company to convert the 100ha of land.
Under the application, the converted land is to be planted with durian kunyit, which is also known as the Musang King, one of the most expensive varieties in the market.
In August, the durian was priced up to RM60 per kg in the Klang Valley.
Kelantan Forestry director Zahari Ibrahim said he had no knowledge of the land approval.
He confirmed that there had been a request for land in the forest but claimed that this had been shot down by the mentri besar.
"We get all sorts of applications for forest land in Kelantan. Whether this is approved or not will be decided by the mentri besar.
"As far as I know, the state government has frozen all applications for plantation purposes but I cannot remember when," he said, adding that a letter dated March 31 was a "mere application".
Sahabat Alam Malaysia field researcher Meor Razak Meor Abdul Rahman, who showed the letter to The Star, claimed such applications for land conversions were just an excuse for clearing of forest trees.
"In peninsular Malaysia, forest plantations, usually timber latex clone (TLC) rubber tree plantations, are still considered forest. Only the land use is changed but the land status remains," he said.
"It is for this reason that the area of forest reserve in Kelantan has not changed," claimed Meor Razak.
He also claimed that among a list of 41 licences approved for logging concessions by the state government in various permanent forest reserves in Gua Musang and Lojing, two were for mining in the Nenggiri forest reserve.
"This is against the Gua Musang local plan as well as the National Physical Plan," he said.
Among the forest reserves affected are Perias, Sungai Betis, Ulu Galas, Nenggiri, Gunung Rabong, Sungai Brok and Batu Papan.
According to the Kelantan Forestry Department website, the area of gazetted Permanent Forest Reserve in the state stood at 623,849ha as at 2012.