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PUBLISHED: Sep 8, 2014 12:16pm

New innovations for old traditions



Arur Dalan villagers serving festival goers their jungle delicacies. -— Pics courtesy of Funkydali Photography

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The increasing popularity of the annual Bario Food and Cultural Festival is proof that old traditions and new innovations are a marriage made in heaven.

THE woody call of the tubung and the alluring timbres of the sape rang through Bario and the Kelabit Highlands during the recent Bario Food and Cultural Festival.

The three-day Pesta Nukenen dan Kebudayaan Kelabit is a community-based festival that aims to boost the local community in food and landscape-based innovation.

Managed by the Kelabit Highlands Kaum Ibu women’s group and supported by the Highland’s JKKK, BELIA, RELA, pastors, villages, homestays, sponsors and Rurum Kelabit Sarawak, it celebrates the spirit of kereja sama to achieve its goals.

A rock solid performance in the 'nela batuh' event
A rock solid performance in the ‘nela batuh’ event

In its ninth year, this year’s event put the spotlight on Bario rice and boasted a programme filled with food displays, cultural performances and games in addition to the yearly community awards.

Malaysian and international visitors flew in on MASwings — which opened more flights for the event — to partake in the festivities, which included arts and crafts of the forest, as well as the farming and cultural heritage of the highlands.

Food presentation in organic utensils.
Food presentation in organic utensils.

Bued Main Beruh longhouse won first prize for the best festival food stall, followed by Arur Dalan and then Pa Umor.

Winners of the cultural awards included Henry Paul Ibu and Dayang Alin for Best Traditional Dress; and Wilson Bal Linuh and Mary Peter @ Sineh Bala Ngimet for Best Solo Dance.

In the Highland Games, Roger Maran Ratu won the Nela’ Batuh. Meanwhile, the Bario Youth team took home top honours in the Tug of War after a fierce battle; the Bario army platoon and Bario BELIA came in second and third respectively.

Handicraft workshop, a festival programme.
Handicraft workshop, a festival programme.

This year’s festival saw social media playing a significant role.

The Facebook page — Bario Food Festival — has a growing number of fans while the Sarawak Tourism Board reported record numbers of responses to its postings of festival food news.

The Kelabit Highlands is sometimes known as “The Land of a Thousand Handshakes” — this year’s online development has seen the traditional greeting being extended to thousands in the virtual world.

Hornbill dance performance by a young Kelabit.
Hornbill dance performance by a young Kelabit.

This blending of old and new reflects a growing theme within the fest — traditional foods, arts and crafts and values, such as the kereja sama, are adapted to create new ways of presenting the history and heritage of the highlands to visitors.

This has a positive effect on community-based tourism and the growth of the festival itself.

The organisers hope that in future the festival will help to nurture rural entrepreneurship across a range of economic sectors, particularly local foods, community-based eco-tourism and cultural tourism.

The broader landscape of Bario and the Highlands — the home of the Kelabit people and their inherited or traditional knowledge — make for a beautiful setting for this community-owned event.

Midday performance telling stories about the Kelabit.
Midday performance telling stories about the Kelabit.

The 2015 international patron of the event Jason Gathorne-Hardy, Lord Medway @ Agan Tadun says that Pesta Nukenen and Kebadayaan Kelabit is a pioneering event, bringing together foods, people, traditional arts and crafts in the beautiful landscape setting of the Highlands.

“It is very encouraging to see this community-owned event gaining an international following. It is certainly unique and presents a model of community-based development and rural innovation and entrepreneurship that has applications in many other settings.

“Perhaps most exciting is the importance of preserving and celebrating the historic linkage of rural communities to the farmed and forested landscapes settings in which they live. This provides a real opportunity for rural innovation and sustainable long-term economic gain,” he says.

All this has been made possible by the protection of the environment and the commitment of the community and main organising committees as well as the festival’s supporters and sponsors over the years, he adds.

Next year’s event — the 10th year of the festival — is happening from July 23 to 25.

For more information, visit the Bario Food Festival Facebook page (




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