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Bario, or a Bornean Shangri-La

I would like to spend some more words on Bario and its inhabitants.

Bario is a little village in the Kelabit Highlands, near the border between Sarawak (belonging to Malaysia) and Kalimantan (belonging to Indonesia). Its inhabitants mostly belong to the Kelabit ethnic group. It is quite big (about 1200 inhabitants according to the locals), but not much bigger than Long Lellang, another Kelabit village I came across during my walks and only a few days walk eastwards. Just like most villages in the area, Bario has an airstrip, from which 14-seat Cessnas and 19-seat Twin-Otters take off regularly towards Miri and the villages of Ba’ Kelalan and Marudi. All around the village, padi fields surround the sparse houses and flank the few roads. At first sight, Bario may seem just like many other Bornean villages. But after a closer look, one notices that most roads are paved, instead of the usual dirt roads; there are more flights from the local airport and with more destinations compared to other villages; there is an imposing clinic made of brickwork and with a shiny sign; the village is powered partly by solar panels, partly by a “mini-hydro” plant; almost all villagers speak fluent english; there is even an open wi-fi internet connection. In short, Bario is far more modern and more connected than most villages I have come across in the interior of Sarawak. Yet, in spite of its relative modernity and its plentiful connections, Bario maintains an aura of myth and mystery in the eyes of the outsiders. When talking about Bario to people in Sabah (the area of Borneo where modernity, with its roads, shopping malls, and oil palm plantations, has replaced the old ways of living most extensively), they would reply with a sigh and a dreamy light in their eyes, as if Bario was an earthly paradise. They would say that they have always wanted to go and visit it. If only it was not so remote and inaccessible! They would talk about the climate, so fresh and enjoyable compared to the heat of the lowland, and yet warm enough for growing anything from rice to pineapple and durian. They would look at me with a mixture of envy and admiration, as if I were about to attempt a venture they would not dare to try, and incredulity, as if I had just told them that I wanted to go and find what hides at the end of the rainbow.

Bario is at the same time a secret Shangri-La and the forefront of the modernization of the Bornean Highlands. A possible explanation of its double nature can be found in the village’s geography and history, both old and recent. Bario is located in a relatively wide valley surrounded by a ring of steep hills and mountains, with only few, well-protected passes allowing the passage of travellers – only those expert of the area and, until a road was built, only those on foot. The fertile ground and the temperate climate enabled the first settlers to grow food all-year round, while the ring of mountains offered protection from invaders. This allowed the first Kelabit who colonized the area, an estimated eight centuries ago, to switch from being nomadic to a settled way of life, to develop advanced agricultural techniques, and to lead a safe and wealthy life. The construction of the characteristic Kelabit megalithic structures (known simply as batu, literally “rock”) started back then, not much as a way to mark the territory or to sacrifice enemies (as my Penan guides claimed), but rather as funerary monuments, stone being regarded in the old-day Kelabit beliefs as petrified life force and power (lalud). Back in those days, interactions with the outside world were limited to head-hunting expeditions, for the young men to show their bravery and valour, and to occasional trading of the few goods that Kelabit could not produce autonomously. Among these trading goods were beads (ba’o in Kelabit language) made of glass, shell, and stone, that reached the remote Highlands of Borneo from as far as Africa, Bohemia, and Venice. These beads were used for making necklaces and headdresses, combined according to specific codes so that different combinations of beads would identify married couples, members of different tribes, and the social status of their wearer.

Changes of power out of the Valley of Bario did not have many repercussions on the life of Highland people until the break of the Second World War. By then, Borneo was split between English Borneo in the North, the independent kingdom of the Brookes (a dinasty of English adventurers known as the white rajas) in Sarawak, and Dutch Borneo in the West. Borneo became part of the checkerboard of war in 1941, when the Japanese occupied the entire island with a series of campaigns over that year and 1942. The English responded in 1945, when a small unit of soldiers was parachuted in the Kelabit Highlands with the mission of organizing the local warriors as guerrilla troops against the Japanese. The special unit, known as Z Force, summed up to six operatives and their leader, lieutenant Tom Harrisson. Harrisson and his troopers succeeded in organizing thousands of warriors from the Kelabit and the nearby tribes in order to weaken the Japanese occupants from the inside. The adventures of the local warriors and of the Z Force troopers are still recalled among the Kelabits, and Tom Harrisson is described with almost legendary tones. By the end of the war, Harrisson and the Kelabits developed a reciprocal friendship and affection that still lasts, even if Harrisson died in 1976. Yet the involvement of the Kelabit in the guerrilla against the Japanese, and their essential role for the success of Harrisson’s mission, had repercussions that went far beyond long-lasting friendships and epic fireplace stories. When peace times came the war efforts of the Kelabits were reckoned by the English, and they found themselves in a vantage point in dealing with the colonists compared to other ethnic groups. For example, Bario had its first school built soon after the end of the war thanks to Tom Harrisson’s interest, allowing people from Bario to learn English and even Malay well before most Borneans from the interior. Such an early and constructive exposure to stimuli from the outside world gave the locals an edge in dealing with modernity in a positive, active way, avoiding some of the exploitation other tribes were victims of. When modern Malaysia was founded in 1963 and Bornean tribes were called to prove their ownership on tribal lands, the Kelabits from the Highlands had a much easier game compared to other tribes. An example of this difference is given by the Penan. Back then, Penan people were still completely nomadic, lived off the products of the jungle, and barely conceived the very concept of private property: not sharing goods with the rest of the tribe was an almost unimaginable sin. Conversely, the Kelabit had been occupying the Highlands for centuries, and had time to become accustomed to the western-like concept of land ownership that the newly-born federation of Malaysia were requiring them to prove. Later on, in the ’80s and ’90s, when Sarawak became the theatre of wild timber-logging, timber companies brought devastation in the lowland forests and disrupted the life of their traditional inhabitants. Powerful politicians were often colluded with the timber companies, which could therefore count on the support of the police and the authorities. There have been many allegations of logging companies resorting to illegal practices in Sarawak while the authorities looked the other way. Locals tried to stop the devastations with appeals and blockades, but to little or no vail. By the time the logging concessions reached the upper Baram and started to approach the Kelabit Highlands, the Kelabit had learned their lesson. Instead of putting up blockades, they resorted to political actions, both formal and informal. At the time, some Kelabits of Bario already gained political positions, and they allegedly moved to pull the right strings and put pressure on the right connections for stopping the chain saws. It worked. An early attempt to build a logging road to Bario was stopped in the early ’90s, and the primary forest around Bario became part of the Pulung Tau (“Our Forest” in the Kelabit language) National Park in 2007.