E-Bario, the Impact of a Telecentre and the Creation of a Technology Hub in the Highlands of Borneo

Posted on January 31, 2010


After leaving Long Lamai we traveled back to Miri and then caught another and different Twin Otter flight to Bario. I’d been in Bario a couple of years ago and knew more or less what to expect. The trip up was as spectacular as before and the airport was more or less the same. But there were changes some subtle and some not so subtle—some or perhaps most circling back to the Internet connection/Telecentre which my friend Roger Harris had facilitated some ten years back as one of the first telecentres in a truly remote and rural area in a Less Developed Country.

eBario has been written about quite widely (Poline Bala, a native of Bario has just completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology for the University of Cambridge on the project!) so I won’t go into any of the background. For a good general touristy piece see http://travel.latimes.com/articles/la-tr-borneo11-2009jan11

But a couple of things struck me as I moved around Bario talking to people, looking at it in the light of my previous visit and the visit to Long Lamai. The first thing that struck me was that the pace of change in Bario is now quite visible. The road to the coast has now been completed.. It’s a 14 hour bone shaking ride by all accounts but people are doing it and the flow of goods back and forth—automobiles, consumer goods and so on has visibly picked up.

As well, Malaysian Airlines is now running two flights a day into Bario where previously there was only one. There is also significant new construction, particularly of a new medical station (sort of an almost hospital) and renovations of some of the local houses into guest houses, and reportedly the pace of tourism has also picked up.

How much of this could be attributed to the Internet connection is hard to say. Bario has for a number of years had strong links with the outside world—young people went away to school in Miri, there were connections through the church, it was seen as the gateway to the Borneo Highlands for tourist (and other) purposes and thus had the regular air connection to the coast.

Without having been there at the time my sense is that the Internet fitted into that overall pattern of “development” in and from Bario, contributed to it and perhaps accelerated it in certain important ways. From conversations with John Tarawe the local telecentre manager, Roger and others it appears that the telecentre had its most impact on facilitating and opening up the market for tourism and particularly for local home stays which have flourished dramatically—moving from 3 when the project started (according to Roger Harris) to some 20 now.

The role that the telecentre played in this was to allow for the marketing of Bario as a destination and as the jumping off place for jungle treks in the Borneo Highlands. But this went considerably beyond setting up a simple website since tourism development of this kind requires a considerable back and forth with both individual tourists and with tour operators who provide most of the clients for this type of quite specialized type of tourism. As well of course, having access to the Internet meant that tourists themselves could travel to Bario in the knowledge that they could keep in close touch with businesses, family and friends in the outside world.

The telecentre seems to have had quite a dramatic effect in supporting the particular type of very small scale localized tourism which makes sense in a community like Bario (longhouses by their nature are easily transformable into multi-unit guest houses and this is what has been done). Our stay in Bario this time in fact was in the house of the former village Chief whose family were long gone to various parts of the world and who had been persuaded to turn his own longhouse into a guest house. Quite interestingly and I think as an important straw in the wind, the Chief’s son had just decided to return home from Kuala Lumpur to help manage the guest house (his parents are in their late ‘80’s) and to see whether he could make a go of it back in this small community that he had left 25 years before. Implicit in our conversations on this was the fact that he was now able via the Internet to remain part of the networks and communication patterns that remained for him in the “outside” world and where he could seamlessly move in and out at will.

So the impact of the telecentre and the Internet rather than being a one way connection is rather more in the rhyzomatic form where one thing leads to another perhaps indirectly but where if one hadn’t occurred then the secondary effect would have either not occurred or have been considerably delayed.

The second observation I want to make is that this time looking at Bario and talking to people what occurred to me was that rather than Bario being isolated and at the end of the road both figuratively and literally, in fact Bario was in the process of becoming a significant communications and information hub for the region and that this would be occurring with or without the road access but was absolutely dependent on the Internet connection and thus being a descendent in some form from the original telecentre.

To a degree Bario as the site for the regional secondary school has long been a regional hub (young people from Long Lamai walk for five days to go to the residential school in Bario and if, as many of them do, they want to go home in mid-term for whatever reason they have to abscond into the jungle and make the five day walk back to their home community. Reportedly, many of the parents seeing their children arriving unannounced from the Bario school, feed them, chastise them and send them back on their way for another five day walk back again to the school!)

But Bario is becoming a hub in other ways as well. Bario is at the centre of the emerging “imagined community” of the “Heart of Borneo”. Encompassing the entire range of very isolated indigenous tribes and communities away from the settled and accessible coast and including groups from Sarawak, Brunei, Sabah and Kalimantan – the “Heart of Borneo” as an imagined community is working with several environmental NGO’s to develop strategies for local environmental self-management and ways of dealing with the encroachment of loggers and logging pushing in from the coast with multiple and ever-advancing tendrils. A meeting of the “Heart of Borneo” group will involve representatives coming to Bario by plane and longboat but also as is the case from Kalimantan by walking for anywhere up to seven days from various inaccessible communities.

The University of Malaysia – Kuching campus (UniMas) is giving this process some additional reality by replicating the overall strategy which was undertaken in Bario initially by Roger Harris (who was at the time a UniMas faculty member) but then taken up and extended through the on-going efforts of other UniMas faculty including notably the current Vice Chancellor Professor Dr. Khairuddin Ab Hamid and the current Dean Peter Songan eventuating in the formation of the Centre of Excellence for Rural Informatics (COERI) which I will write about in a later blog. They have a contract with the Government of Malaysia to replicate eBario in five other remote communities in Borneo (Long Lamai was one of these.)

A further sign of Bario becoming a hub is the current discussion from UniMas and local authorities in Bario to create a science lab in Bario as a sustainable community project to house the variety of visiting researchers and scientists now using Bario as their point of entry into the Borneo interior. As well, the intention is to use the science lab as a base for local knowledge gathering and development particularly around resource management and for example development of the local agricultural industry and particularly Bario rice which is prized and commands a premium price throughout the region. This as well, of course (and not incidentally) will add to the traffic through the home stays.

(As an aside it should be remembered that Bario is a very small and for the most part subsistence community—3000 or so inhabitants including the even smaller “satellite communities—really collections of longhouses with a church—so the revenue generated by increasing the flow of tourists locally by even a handful is quite significant in the local context (and would be even more significant in the other remote communities in central Borneo).

A final straw in the wind is the proposal now moving forward through the original eBario telecentre team to create a local radio station in Bario to broadcast in the Kelabit language. This would be the first community radio station in Malaysia and the process of its licensing is widely seen as path breaking for the entire country. Of further interest of course, is that Kelabit is one of the smallest language groups in the region (there are only about 6000 native speakers) and it is anticipated that the radio station would provide a very strong model for parallel language preservation for other indigenous groups.

The link between the proposed radio station and the telecentre is both a direct one (the same principals are involved) and an indirect one in that it is unlikely that without the organizational and “political” experience gained by the community in the operation and management of the telecentre that the radio station proposal would have gotten this far. All of the above thus should be seen as a contribution to the on-going discussion in Malaysia, the developing world and elsewhere as to the “impact” of telecentres.

What I think can be learned from the above is that telecentres as places where technology, technology management, projects management and the politics of all of this are worked through and developed at the local level provide the focal point for innovation and development from a community base that otherwise might not have occurred or not have occurred in as timely a manner. The Internet access is of course, important and this access in itself has significant impacts both direct and indirect but possibly of even greater importance from an impact perspective is the effect that the development and management of a community based telecentre initiative has on a community and on individuals within that community.

Bario, of course, is under threat from logging and any article discussing Bario or the other indigenous groups in Borneo has to deal with this. What is of interest though concerning Bario, and the other communities included in the COERI/UniMas is that following Bario these other communities are visibly being empowered through not only the access to the technology but also through the process by means of which they are being assisted in coming to use the technology. The process that COERI is following is a very deliberate and sensitive one of community engagement and in practice community development. And by doing this they are creating not only a community of Internet users but a community that is enabled (perhaps emboldened) to use the technology to challenge the forces that are impinging on their lives and livelihoods.

Thus perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from Bario is that the process of gaining access to and use of the Internet may also be in some instances the process of becoming an active agent in the management of one’s own development process. In the context of five or six decades where “development” has been something done to communities like Bario by (sometimes) well meaning outsiders, the facilitation (as COERI/UniMas is doing) of communities both prepared and able to participate actively in the direction and management of their own development using the Internet as a major supporting instrument is something both singular and significant and an “impact” worth noting and celebrating.