eBario sets out on new terrain

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Roads in the Highlands are well-suited to 4-wheel-drive vehicles to enjoy the scenic and accessible Heart of Borneo.

 

eBario, the multi-award-winning telecentre initiative by researchers in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) has done what it set out to do: provide computers and internet access to the remote and isolated village of Bario in the Kelabit Highlands of north-eastern Sarawak.

Ten years on, eBario will now be undergoing its own transformation and re-branding in response to its evolving role in a rapidly changing world.

As more researchers from Unimas and other institutions, including overseas, take an interest in such issues as the sustainability of the Heart of Borneo, community resilience in the face of climate change and the contribution of traditional knowledge to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), eBario will play a pivotal role as a research centre in promoting the Highlands as a research destination.

According to a press release from Unimas, in addition to continuing to stimulate local development, eBario’s role will now focus on managing the knowledge that this technology makes increasingly accessible.

The residents are constructing a community museum next to the telecentre in Bario so one role for eBario will be to enhance its services with a virtual component; digitizing Kelabit culture and traditions for the benefit of future generations.

It will facilitate research activities, communicate the results to the world and make them relevant and useful to the residents of the Highlands.

How eBario brought the outside world to Bario

In 1998, Bario’s population was dwindling; communication with the outside world were rudimentary; mobile phones were not available; no-one in Bario knew anything about the internet; nobody regularly used computers; households had to generate their own electricity; agriculture depended on imported labour; there was no road access and less than one flight per day from Miri.

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Batu Lawi in clear view on approach to Bario.

 

Fast forward to today, 10 years after eBario was handed over to the community, former residents are returning to live in Bario; everyone knows and uses the internet; computers are well-known and mobile phones are everywhere; Radio Bario operates as Malaysia’s first ever community radio station; a solar-farm provides 24-hour electricity; agriculture is mechanised; the Highlands road network has greatly expanded, including access to Miri, from which there are upwards of three daily flights to Bario.

The socioeconomy and demographic profile of Bario has also changed.

With easier access, tourism is now a major source of income; once-scarce goods are now commonplace; households boast a wide range of electrical appliances and there are even occasional problems with road traffic.

Bario has been elevated to a sub-district, with a new administrative centre. High-level dignitaries frequently visit, including the prime and deputy prime ministers. Local functions have become fixed features on Sarawak’s event calendar.

At Unimas, eBario spawned replication projects involving nine other similar communities across Malaysia as well as a dedicated research institute tasked with determining what it takes to stimulate locally-relevant development within marginalised communities with information and communication technologies.

Its research and advisory services have reached national and global audiences.

The eBario initiative can justifiably claim some influence in bringing about these changes, either directly or indirectly.

Research has highlighted the more tangible impacts, such as the incomes from tourism, the improvements in healthcare and education, the benefits of immediate communications with distant family members and digitization of the rapidly disappearing Kelabit culture.

But possibly of greater significance, residents will say “e-Bario has put us on the map.”

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Radio Bario is Malaysia’s first-ever community radio station.

 

By shining a spotlight on the needs and aspirations of Malaysians at risk of being marginalised whilst the rest of the country plunges headlong towards Vision 2020, eBario has demonstrated that the technologies that urban Sarawakians take for granted can also be used by communities at the fringes of the communications infrastructure to revitalise the rural economy and fortify minority cultures and lifestyles, provided they are introduced in a way that is sensitive to its socio-cultural-economic context.

Bario’s achievements have also placed it on the threshold of global impact.

As members of FORMADAT – The Alliance of the Indigenous Peoples of the Highlands of Borneo – the Kelabit community, with their experiences from eBario, is now ready to contribute to the internationally endorsed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This is because indigenous knowledge has been shown to be capable of contributing to a better understanding of climate change and its impact on fragile eco-systems as well as providing important insight into methods that can mitigate its effects.

Now the world is beginning to listen.

As a winner of the Equator Prize 2015 – an international award by the UN that recognises outstanding local achievement in advancing sustainable development solutions for people, nature and resilient communities – FORMADAT is positioned to achieve global influence, with eBario poised as a key contributor to the processes of knowledge generation and management that will ensure that its members’ traditional knowledge fully contribute to its SDGs.

Bario residents are fully aware of the internet’s potential for stimulating local development.

Their device of choice is now the smart-phone, and they expect comprehensive access to the telecommunication network.

Bario today is a very different place from that which confronted the first members of the Unimas team to approach the community.

 

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A tourist in Bario conducting an international Skype call.

 

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