Environmental Commitment of Rainforest World Music Festival

From tree planting, recycling to food waste composting, Sarawak's headliner Rainforest World Music Festival is demonstrating commitment to reducing environmental impacts. A commentary by Mallika Naguran.

Having announced that it would “green the festival”, Sarawak Tourism Board began tree planting in 2010 that soon became a yearly affair. This typically involves getting participating musicians and members of the media to plant coastal seedlings or mangrove saplings in sensitive areas such as the Kuching Wetlands National Park under the guidance of local forestry department.

Commercial companies such as Shell and Petronas typically chip in as sponsors. At times we were asked to wear sponsor caps when posing for photos before getting our hands and feet muddy.

The Board has in the last two years moved on from mere tree planting (some called it green washing) to countering carbon emissions and waste management. I could not be happier, having frequently suggested and even proposed to assist with the greening of the festival since 2008. At media conferences, I posed questions to the organisers on the festival’s environmental impacts, not necessarily to put them in a spot but to urge responsible actions.

 Musicians and media of RWMF get into nature conservation at Kuching Wetland National Park in Sarawak, as part of the festival's environmental commitment.

Musicians and media of RWMF get into nature conservation at Kuching Wetland National Park in Sarawak, as part of the festival's environmental commitment.

I recall us journalists being horrified when an organiser beamed in responding to my question that the waste generated at the festival were not a problem at all as they were all sent for incineration, recyclables included! How things have changed.

A clear vision is needed to induce sustainability within the festival’s DNA instead of the current band aid treatment.

Why is it important to green RWMF? Borneo’s famous world music festival takes place within the forested area of Santubong and by the South China Sea - two areas with different ecosystems. Considering the scale of deforestation that has already taken place primarily due to the growth of oil palm plantation, Sarawak needs to safeguard its amazing wildlife that can only survive with natural habitats.

Moreover, hosting a mega event that draw 15,000 to 20,000 festival-goers yearly over three days have huge impacts in many ways – from the amount of energy, water and food consumed to the amount of waste generated (solid, liquid, non-recyclables), plastics manufactured (made from oil, chemicals and poison creatures when dumped in the forest or sea), to greenhouse gas emission (causing global warming).

Caution has to be made, however, on face value ‘green’ options. For instance, the use of shuttle buses to transport people from Kuching to Santubong is wonderful as it reduces car population and carbon emission. But powering up such shuttle buses with biofuel (a 2016 initiative) may not be a good idea. By avoiding fossil fuel, RWMF could indirectly encourage deforestation, fire-related carbon emission and land conflicts due to the use of palm oil in the fuel mix.

Sustainability is not confined to materials though. The social aspects of running a festival are integral to uphold local traditions, cultures, art and talent. This aspect is well taken care of as the venue of the festival itself—the Sarawak Cultural Village—epitomises the lifestyle of Sarawakian tribes at the various ethnic longhouses.

On top of that, booth spaces are allocated for local craftsmen and social entrepreneurs, including upcycled materials; Biji Biji handcrafted bags are made out of car seat belts, which are fashionable and friendly to Mother Nature.

New Measures to Tackle Waste

A new initiative seen in 2016 was the dealing of waste at the festival grounds—a first since RWMF began 19 years ago. Malaysian social enterprise Biji Biji was engaged to handle waste management, which involved the placement of bins for recyclables and food waste, the sorting of solid waste types, and public awareness.

 The Rainforest World Music Festival turns food waste into compost with the help of student volunteers.

The Rainforest World Music Festival turns food waste into compost with the help of student volunteers.

Along with 24 student volunteers, they collected waste bins for segregating, weighing and processing. Some of the food waste (195kg) was turned it into layering compost that went to a farmer in Kuching, while others (135kg) went to a worm farm. Under a partnership with Worming Up, food waste was fed to worms, which got plumped up with the fresh protein, and in turn fed to farmed chickens that end up on dining tables. Circular economy in action!  

Still there were problems in executing the plans, mostly by stallholders not fully understanding the need to segregate waste and by festival participants dumping waste in wrong bins. This meant that a greater amount of waste could have been saved from the landfill. This setback could be better handled if there were opportunities to educate stakeholders well in advance.

The Way Forward

Still, other areas need attention. Importantly, a clear vision is needed to induce sustainability within the festival’s DNA instead of the current band aid treatment. Comprehensive strategies should support this vision, tackling the full range of impacts in a number of ways—creative beyond conservative—with defined outcomes. The official website is also a good medium for education and to urge festival goers to act responsibly while having fun.

Will RWMF get greener on its 20th anniversary in 2017? “For this year, we have plans to work with our City Council for the simple reason that we want the involvement of the locals in this state event. Last year’s start on waste management was an eye opener and we were happy with the results. This also attracted the interest of the international community,” said Angeline Bateman, Events and Corporate Relations Director of Sarawak Tourism Board.

Bateman hits the nail on the head by seeking to engage communities in making RWMF greener. After all it would be in the interest of Sarawakians to have safe, healthy and ecologically vibrant places to live in. Making public sustainability plans and asking for feedback are good for transparency and community involvement. These are steps that ought to be taken before RWMF can sufficiently command fame as a responsible, world-class festival.

The writer is Gaia Discovery publisher and sustainability consultant. Photos by Mallika Naguran and Biji Biji.

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Culture, Nature, Social Enterprise at Rainforest World Music Festival 2016