The improved communications that Bario, in the Sarawak region of Malaysia, now enjoys with the outside world has led to perceivable improvements in the lives of the local Kelabit communities.
e-Bario is a research project undertaken by the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) with the support of the International Development Research Centre of Canada and the Government of Malaysia. Its objective is to demonstrate the opportunities for sustainable development in a remote and isolated rural community from the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Beginning in 1998, the project was undertaken against the background of the Government of Malaysia’s aggressive adoption of ICTs for national development and the underdeveloped infrastructure and scattered population of the Nation’s largest state, Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. It has as its rationale the delivery of equal access to ICTs for those remote and marginalised communities that characterise rural life in Sarawak, and which contain more than half of the State’s population. Many such communities are un-served by road and have access to meagre or non-existent telecommunications services. The objectives were to demonstrate that access to ICTs, specifically the Internet, could precipitate significant improvements in the lives of such communities.
The methodological approach was to conduct a pilot telecentre implementation within one remote community. The remote highland community of Bario in northern Sarawak was selected. It has a population of around 1,000 people and is the traditional centre of the Kelabit ethnic group of Borneo, which consists of around 5,000 people. Baseline studies were conducted in order to understand the conditions of life in the chosen community and computers were progressively introduced, beginning with the school. A community telecentre was established with the intention of providing community access to computers and to the Internet.
Bario is a remote and isolated community accessible only by air. Before the e-Bario project, communications were limited to rudimentary radio links. Electricity is obtainable from household generators or solar panels. It represents an extreme example of the digital divide. Despite its isolation, the community includes two schools that participated in the study. A computer laboratory with satellite Internet connection was established in the junior-secondary school, and the schools teachers were trained how to use computers. As the school children readily took to the computers, this had an immediate effect in acculturating the entire community towards the use of ICTs. Over time, the research team formed a close relationship with the project’s community steering committee, and this allowed them to jointly formulate a development agenda designed to make effective use of improved access to abundant information sources within initiatives that reflect the needs, aspirations, problems and opportunities within the community.
With the assistance of Telekom Malaysia, a community telecentre was established which consisted of computers with satellite (VSAT) access to the Internet as well as public telephones and a reliable generator-driven power supply, augmented with solar panels and batteries. In July 2002, the project was handed over by the research team to the community, with a local management committee and a project manager.
e-Bario has delivered a variety of important benefits to the community. In the school, the pupils have benefited from earlier exposure to ICTs than would have otherwise been the case. This has had the effect of accelerating their learning, not only in computer subjects but also in other areas of the curriculum in which access to the Internet has broadened their knowledge base and expanded their learning horizons. Not least among these benefits, the pupils’ English language ability has also improved, owing to its predominance on the Internet. This is a highly desirable outcome in view of the Malaysian Government’s emphasis on English language teaching in the national curriculum.
The Bario community is also using the telecentre to promote its local tourism activities through their website. Bario has enjoyed a steady trickle of visitors who are attracted by the unique culture and hospitality of the residents as well as the pristine highland rainforest environment.
Tourism is a significant contributor to the local economy as it generates incomes for a range of individuals, many of them women. There has been an increase in the number of lodges and restaurants providing accommodation and meals since e-Bario began. The increase in tourism has had the effect of doubling the number of flights between Bario and Miri, the nearest town on the coast.
This has also improved the agricultural economy. Bario is famous for its rice, which is grown organically, and is highly sought after due to its light taste and delicate fragrance. The increase in the number of flights has enabled farmers in Bario to send more rice to the urban markets, and this in turn has stimulated rice production.
Another benefit relates to the use of the telecentre by the local clinic, which became the first rural clinic in Sarawak with Internet access. The medical technician at the clinic has been able to share medical information with doctors in the towns, obtain better information about the drugs at the clinic and about the common ailments among the residents.
The Kelabit community of Sarawak, whose heartland is in and around Bario, regularly conduct on-line discussions on topics that affect their future. The e-Bario telecentre now allows Kelabits living in the highlands to participate in these discussions on an equal footing with their compatriots in the towns and overseas. The Kelabit community is preserving their cultural heritage by capturing the recollections of the old folks online, and developing digital library.
The improved communications that Bario now enjoys with the outside world have lead to a number of significant impacts. Family interactions have greatly improved, and this has been most keenly felt at the time of family emergencies, such as at times of sickness and bereavement. Previously, relatives often heard about such emergencies well after the event when it was too late to act. Additionally, the telecentre played a crucial role in co-ordinating search and rescue operations after a helicopter crashed in the nearby rugged highlands. Flight operations have also been enhanced by the improved communications that provide pilots with vital weather conditions that can be highly variable over short distances in the highland terrain.
The e-Bario experience has been shared nationally and internationally with several agencies, including presentations organised by UNESCAP, IDRC and the Government of Malaysia. The project has also won several awards, as follows: