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Bridging the digital divide through eBario concept

on 03 Januari 2011.

KUCHING: Bario known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hand-Shakes’ is the homeland to the Kelabit ethnic minority. The indigenous community that emerged from isolation only within the last half century has shown massive positive development from the results of eBario projects.

John Tarawe

eBario began in 1998 as 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. The objective was to demonstrate opportunities for sustainable development in a remote and isolated rural community from the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

“The project was undertaken against the background of the government’s aggressive adoption of ICTs for national development and the underdeveloped infrastructure as well as the scattered population of the nation’s largest state,” eBario Sdn Bhd project director John Tarawe told The Borneo Post during an exclusive trip to Bario.

Before the eBario project, communications were limited to rudimentary radio links and electricity was obtainable from household generators or solar panels. “At the heart of the Borneo island, Bario represents an extreme example of the digital divide,” said Tarawe.

According to Tarawe, a baseline study was conducted in order to understand the conditions of life and computers were progressively introduced, beginning with schools. “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 phones and a reliable generator-driven power supply.”

In July 2002, the project was handed over by the research team to the community, with a local project manager and management committee. The project demonstrated that access to ICTs, specifically the Internet could precipitate significant improvements in the lives of such communities.

E-Bario has won many awards and was featured by the International Telecommunications Union as ‘one of the most notable of Malaysia’s Internet development initiatives.’

Due to the great success of the eBario project, the Unimas team was given the opportunity and honour by the government to replicate the same implementation model to five other nationwide remote sites throughout Malaysia.

Tarawe, who is also the telecentre manager for Centre of Excellence for Rural Informatics (CoERI) said the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) had allocated RM4 million for the project. “Four projects have been implemented at Long Lamai and Ba’Kelalang in Sarawak, Kg Buayan in Sabah and Larapan Island in Semporna. The remaining will be used to upgrade the telecommunication facilities in Bario.”

With the implementation of telecommunication services in community villages, Bario is finally on the global radar. Riding on the new visibility, Bario is currently enjoying 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 now a significant contributor to the local economy. There has been an increase in the number of lodges and restaurants providing accommodation and meals since eBario began. The increase in tourism has had the effect of doubling the number of flights between Bario and Miri.

“This has had a knock-on effect on 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 allowed the farmers in Bario to send more rice to the urban markets and this in turn has stimulated rice production during that period,” Tarawe pointed out.

However, he also revealed that Bario’s rice production had drop significantly during the last few years because of the lack of manpower. In order to overcome this issue, CoRIE was currently working with National Padi and Rice Board (LPN) to introduce SMART farming concept for the community.

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 regularly conduct online discussions on topics that affect their future. “The eBario 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,” said Tarawe.

“Moreover, the entire Kelabit community is now developing online facilities to preserve their cultural heritage by capturing the recollections of the old folks and by assembling a digital library of Kelabit writings,” he added.

According to a study, the improved communications that Bario now enjoys with the outside world has lead to a number of significant changes. Family interactions have greatly improved and this had

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 coordinating 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 could be highly variable over short distances in the highland terrain.

“The eBario experience has been shared nationally and internationally with several agencies, including presentations organised by UMDP, UNESCAP, IDRC and the government of Malaysia,” said Tarawe, who is also the chairman of Kelabit Association of Sarawak and chairman of the Heart of Borneo Forum (Formadat).

The project team adopted Participatory Action Research (PAR) as the research methodology. Adopting PAR led the researchers and the community to jointly agree on a community development agenda that would be based on the use of the telecentre. The agenda consisted of a set of activities in which information systems and ICTs were embedded, but which also included associated human activities as well.

“The agenda serves as a long term vision for community interaction with itself, with the wider Kelabit diaspora, researchers and other external agencies leading to community development that is mediated by ICTs,” Tarawe explained.

Extracted from The Borneo Post.

Arkib Berita

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 94300 Kota Samarahan, Sarawak, Malaysia Telephone: +60 82581000/+60 82581388, Fax: +60 82 665 088, Email: corporate@unimas.my
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