Can a Music Festival Save a Rainforest?

Sep 01, 2009
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When the Rainforest World Music Festival was conceived 12 years ago, saving rainforests was not one of its objectives.


621 Sarawak's Lan-è Tuyang performs against a rainforest backdrop at the Rainforest World Music Festival.


But without the rainforest, it would be just another concert in a park.

Staged at the foot of Mount Santubong in Sarawak, the Rainforest World Music Festival has a setting unlike any other music festival – its backdrop is a living, breathing ancient forest.

At the opening ceremony this year, Datuk Michael Manyin anak Jawong, Malaysia’s Minister of Urban Development and Tourism, said “the forest is Sarawak’s unique selling point”. What he did not add was that Sarawak is notorious for se

lling its forest to timber companies. Areas being cleared for oil palm, timber and building development projects include peat swamp and mangrove forests, considered valuable

land for carbon sinking.

Just 15 minutes away from the festival grounds, large areas of mangrove forests are being cleared to make way for a new school.

It’s therefore hard to believe that Sarawak, also known at the “Land of the Hornbill”, truly views its forests as unique and valuable selling points for its tourism industry. Which is a pity because the Rainforest World Music Festival has been drawing visitors keen to experience a rainforest.

In 2008, a record 22,573 music-goers from 36 nations attended the annual music festival. The Sarawak Tourism Board, which owns and organises the festival, reported spin-off earnings of over half a million Malaysian ringgit. The visitors came to listen to 17 international bands, and many of them then took off on hikes to experience Sarawak’s famous forests and the hospitality of its indigenous tribes.

Mulu National Park, located near the coastal city of Miri, is renowned for its majestic caves and peaks. It is managed by the privately owned Borsarmulu Park Management Sdn Bhd. After the privatisation, areas of the park were illegally logged when concessions in the surrounding area infringed the parks’ boundaries. Illegal logging occurs throughout Malaysia but this was the first time it occurred in Mulu.

In 2000, the then Minister of Tourism Dato Sri Abang Haji Johari Tun Openg said the decision to privatise the park’s management was to “ensure the implementation of an international standard of management at Mulu augured well for tourism”. But what about conservation?


623 Mangrove forests at the foot of Mount Santubong make way for a new building development.


It is not clear if Borsarmulu took any action against the companies that infringed park boundaries. It is not publicly known if logging continues within the reserve because the dissemination of such information is suppressed (since 2008, journalists need special permits to enter Mulu). Whatever the case, the Sarawak government appears to be happy with what Borsarmulu is doing because the company has been awarded the tender to manage Sarawak’s oldest and Malaysia’s first national park, Bako.

Bako is one of the few places where tourists can view Borneo’s endemic Proboscis monkey feeding on mangrove leaves on the mud flats. The park comprises four unique habitats that provide food and shelter for over 200 species of birds. Its flora and fauna depend on sound policy and enforcement measures to maintain the delicate balance between development and conservation. We can only hope that Borsarmulu will find the right balance.

In 2008, a collection of individuals and non-profit organizations, sat outside the festival grounds to protest the conversion of forestland into degraded habitats. Their placards read “What Rainforest?” – a question event organisers have not shown any signs of being ready or able to answer.

Sarawak has lost close to 90% of its original forests, and this is due primarily to logging. It has the highest rate of deforestation in the tropical world, with 142 km² of primary forest disappearing every year. Unless Datuk Michael Manyin anak Jawong does something to back his words, Sarawak’s forests will soon no longer be the state’s main selling point for tourism

The Rainforest World Music Festival will make its 13th appearance next July, attracting tens of thousands and generating tourism spin-offs yet again. But unless the government starts to channel some of the earnings into forest protection, it may not be long before it will be a music festival without a rainforest.


Photos by Debby Ng

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

Contact Debby