Bringing the Internet to Pandora (1)

Posted on January 18, 2010


I’m here in a place called Long Lamai.  It is a community of Penan’s who are a tribe in central Borneo who were originally nomads (the “last nomads”).  They have been settled in this community for about 40 years although there are still a small number of nomadic Penan elsewhere in Borneo.

We (I’m traveling with two students/project officers from COERI and my wife) came here after a one hour flight from Kuching to Miri, a 70 minute flight (via a two prop engine Twin Otter) and an amazing one hour trip up river on a locally made long boat.

We are here under the auspices of a project being undertaken by COERI looking to “replicate” the success of the eBario project .  EBario has been widely documented and described so I won’t go into that here but just to say it was a project done in bringing the Internet into a previously very (physically) isolated community and then providing continuous and very effective and creative support for it as the project and the use of the Internet has matured.  (We will be going to Bario next so I won’t comment further on that.)

The project in Long Lamai is of a rather different order. Bario, while physically isolated had for a variety of historical reasons been socially networked into the larger Sarawak and Malaysian society for some time to the point where the initial project manager completed here academic work with a thesis on eBario as a doctoral dissertation for the University of Cambridge and where the recently retired President of Malaysian Airways was a native of Bario.

Long Lamai on the other hand appears to have only very limited interconnections with the outside world.  Only a handful of local people speak English (English seems to be a very common third language in Bario) and only one person (the local manager of the telecentre seems at all fluent).  The community appears to be almost completely self-sufficient.  Homes are very very spare with only limited objects of any kind and even fewer not made locally (out of rattan or palm leaf).  Food is also for the most part locally produced (with the exception of salt and sugar) and the occasional snack like the ever-present Coca Cola.

Only one or two houses have television (via satellite) and electricity is a major problem overall produced either by bringing barrels of oil or propane in via the longboats or more recently via solar panels.  The community does have an elementary school with its own electricity supply but no Internet connection to this point.

Into this community COERI has brought the Internet.  The story of bringing the Internet to Long Lamai will, I’m sure be the subject of a chapter or more in the account of the project once it is finally written but the building itself sits in point of pride in the very centre of the village (it replaced the local church which was relocated as it was being rebuilt).  In addition the telecentre is painted a bright green (a decision of the local community) as it represents “nature” we were told.

The project seems to be following a strict (and sensitive) protocol of local engagement which is made more complex and lengthy but ultimately more sustainable since the community insists on all decisions being made by a formal process of community consensus.  Thus the decision to accept COERI’s offer of a telecentre was the result of very lengthy discussions within the community including some opposition from some older residents.  The project is locally managed by community member who spent some 30 years outside of the community working in Miri.  He speaks English quite well but has little direct technical knowledge.

The physical site is largish building with a concrete floor, its own generator and solar panels, modern electrical wiring, a satellite dish (the Internet is being provided on a cost-shared basis between the service provider and COERI/UniMass.  There are three table top computers (without harddrives—as a way of saving energy) and two netbooks all of which have Internet connections via the satellite service.  The upload and download speed seems very acceptable (certainly better than anything I was able to achieve in Bario two years ago) and should be sufficient to the communities requirements.

The question of course, is what are the community’s requirements.  The people in Long Lamai are very self-sufficient (and of course “sustainable”) think Pandora in Avatar. The immediate Internet interests and applications are of course for email and social networking (Facebook seems quite popular) since many of the young people in Long Lamai have been away to residential secondary school (in Bario),and young adult frequently go away to work in the cities for periods of time (reportedly up to 3 months).  The second application that the community has identified is as a basis for developing a local tourist industry (“homestays”).

I have a sneaking suspicion that my wife and I are seen as a bit of product testing for the homestay market for Long Lamai (a wonderful experience I should add).  In this area they are looking to follow eBario which has been able to leverage its Internet connection (and of course the other local amenitieis) into a thriving local industry and a extremely important source of outside cash income.

Long Lamai is very much behind Bario in this and it will be very interesting to see how they evolve in response to the community’s desire to engage with the outside world in this way over the next few years.  Long Lamai itself has characteristics which should make it very attractive to a certain strata of adventuring tourists—I looked outside the window openang this morning to see a local man walking on the path carrying is blowpipe and quiver out for a morning hunt!—but they have much to learn in this area.

There medium term intention is to develop a website and begin to do some marketing for bringing tourists in to the community for homestay and in this regard a small site giving access to the knowledge/experience of the nomadic Penan has been developed. Where or how, the Internet use will evolve and with it where or how the community will evolve is still to my mind an open question.

COERI itself is moving forward with this in what appears to be an exemplary fashion.  They are moving slowly and deliberately generating community interest without imposing it and facilitating decision making rather than precipitating it.  Also they are documenting these processes along the way and using this and the other 3 replication communities as sites for research for a very energetic and bright group of Masters and Ph.D. students in a variety of disciplines.

One final note and I’ll close this… This telecentre development in Long Lamai is a truly fascinating one from a specifically community informatics perspective because this community has chosen to make all of its decisions concerning the telecentre and the outcomes of the telecentre as a community.  As an example, they have decided to develop the homestay pro gram as a community activity and they will look to share any financial return from the homestay with community with a portion of any funding going to financially support the on-going maintenance of the Telecentre itself.

An additional element of the contribution to sustainability is that attached to the telecentre itself are three pay phones (the only phones in the community).  Community members use the phones by purchasing a card from the telecentre and the telecentre has priced these cards to be affordable by the community members while still providing a small surplus to be available for Telecentre support.

To be continued…

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