Wakatobi, Indonesia – They have lived on the sea for centuries, but overfishing now threatens the unique culture of the nomadic ocean dwellers known as the Bajau Laut.
Found on Indonesia’s southern Sulawesi island, the Bajau have roamed its waters for at least 400 years, living on boats or in stilt villages out at sea, and relying on its resources for subsistence. But because of extensive fishing, the once bountiful ocean can no longer support the Bajau’s aquatic way of life.
Marine biologists and divers from around the world are drawn to Wakatobi, a three-island complex off the Sulawesi coast.
“Used to be I could fill my whole canoe with fish,” 17-year-old Ali says, surveying the glorious out-at-sea view with dismay. “These days, I’m lucky to sell five groupers by evening.”
Faced with dwindling catches, other young Indonesians may simply turn to land-based livelihoods such as farming or retail. But that is not an option for Ali. Born a Bajau, or “sea-gypsy”, he sees himself committed to a wholly ocean-going life.
In the past, Bajaus lived for months at a time on longboats called lepa lepa. While some still retain this nomadic marine existence, an increasing number now live in stilt communities, or have given up sea-based life altogether and moved to coastal cities.
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The Bajau are excellent free-divers. Unlike most fishermen who float above their prey, the Bajau dive and walk the ocean’s floor to hunt fish and octopi with homemade spear-guns. Wearing wooden goggles and no fins, Bajaus dive up to 20 metres deep and remain underwater for as long as five minutes on a single breath.
Bajau children destined to be spear-gun fishermen have their eardrums pierced when they are young so they will not burst later from water pressure while diving.
The Bajaus are Sunni Muslims, but many still believe in the spirit world of the sea, which must be appeased through rituals and offerings.
In one of the few English books about Southeast Sulawesi, The Mysteries of the Islands of Buton, author Caleb Coppenger notes the Bajau traditionally throw the placenta of a newborn child in the ocean. Villagers believe they should protect the sea as “it is the home of their sibling”.
With an estimated population of 800,000, the various Southeast Asian nomadic sea tribes range from the Philippines and Malaysia, through eastern Indonesia and all the way up to Myanmar.
“Before, you couldn’t swim for bumping into fish…Today, you are lucky if you see fish above 25 centimetres.”
– David J Smith, professor
Bajau children swim before they walk, learning to steer canoes as their land-based counterparts learn to ride bicycles.
Not long ago, they mostly lived in floating houses. Even now, they still shun dry land, preferring to live in stilt villages up to a kilometre offshore.
The Bajau’s watery realm roughly coincides with the famed “coral triangle”, home to a third of the world’s coral reefs where more than 3,000 species of fish swim.
Known as Wallacea – after the pioneering 19th century evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace – this region marks the interface of the Asian and Australasian tectonic plates and ecosystems – a fecund hotbed of biodiversity and a paradise for nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the Bajau.
But it’s a paradise that could be lost within this generation, partly because of the excesses of the Bajau themselves and other fishing communities.
Over the last 10 years, fish stocks here have dropped significantly, according to Operation Wallacea, a Wakatobi-based research group. From 2002-06, researchers noted a 13 per cent annual decline. Their study cites overfishing because of burgeoning Asian demand for tropical rockfish and octopus, as well as reckless new fishing methods such as reef-bombing, cyanide poisoning and gillnetting.
“Before, you couldn’t swim for bumping into fish,” says David J Smith, a professor at the University of Essex in England who has led research projects at Operation Wallacea’s Wakatobi site since 1999. “Today, you are lucky if you see fish above 25 centimetres.”
Haji Aziz is a regional National Radio station host who has advocated against destructive reef-bombing among the Bajau community. He says thanks to awareness campaigns, the practice has subsided.
“They don’t use bombs anymore because the government is monitoring more now,” explains Aziz. “This is good for several reasons: we don’t lose limbs, fish don’t die young. We are not destroying the coral and thereby sending fish far away.”
Abdul Manan, president of the Bajau Association of Indonesia, is quick to add that reef-bombing is not isolated to individuals in the Bajau community, but a regional phenomenon.
While spreading awareness about destructive fishing practices is important, Manan says the Bajau must also develop sustainable fisheries.
This means promoting ideas such as not catching a population that is laying eggs, he says. It also means helping the Bajau community develop skills.
“We are fishermen but not all of us have to fish anymore, not all of us can fish anymore. Some must go into fish culturing, some must join industry,” says Manan.
To survive as a community, the Bajau will have to change their ways. The tribe’s maritime lore has been passed on orally from generation to generation, requiring little in the way of formal education. However, that is changing as more of the sea nomads settle on ground.
The new economic and ecological challenges have forced the Bajau to develop specialised schooling to keep their distinct culture afloat.
As Ali readies his canoe to try his luck again at sea, two other Bajau teenagers, Amran and Butto, wait for another kind of boat: a ferry to the high school in the Wakatobi capital of Kaledupa, about 1,900 kilometres east of Jakarta.
“My dad said, ‘Go to school and become someone smart, not like me, tortured by the sea,'” Amran says.
Butto, an orphan, can’t afford to spend a full day in class. “I wake at 6am, go to school. Then at 1pm, I go to sea” to hunt octopus, he explains.
“Just 10 years ago, most thought school was wasting money [as opposed to] going to sea where you earn money immediately”.
– Parman Bajo, college graduate
Still for both, the Kaledupa school is worth the extra expense and effort, as compared with the lackadaisical education in Sampela’s Bajau stilt-village. A midmorning visit to the middle school there found students lazing around the classrooms as their teachers chatted together outside.
When asked about his major educational achievements, the principal listed “getting the students shoes”.
Parman Bajo, one of only six college graduates from his community, would like to see the Bajau aim higher.
In his column for the monthly Bajau Bangsit newsletter, Parman Bajo exhorts young Bajau to follow his own example and pursue further learning. But it’s a hard sell, he admits. “Just 10 years ago, most thought school was wasting money”, as opposed to “going to sea where you earn money immediately”.
Solutions close to home
Bajau traditionalists are suspicious of formal schooling as a path away from maritime life into more land-based trades.
But it need not be so, Parman insists. Conservation groups and regional government are keen to promote alternative livelihoods locally in such enterprises as seaweed processing and ecotourism.
To this end they’ve set up an open community resource centre right on the same pier where Amran, Butto and Ali embark on their respective boats. The place is called Rumah Pintar, or “smart house”.
Its name derives from its function, Parman explains. “The Rumah Pintar is supposed to make us smart about using our natural resources, managing the sea and finances.”
The building looks like an ordinary wooden schoolhouse from the outside. Inside though, one must be careful not to fall into the large hole in the middle of the floor.
A net hangs down into the water containing hundreds of fish – part of the aquaculture fish farming lab which, along with seaweed cultivation and computer skills, figure in the Rumah Pintar curriculum.
Now that’s the type of learning a young Bajau can get excited about.
Butto is convinced. “I do want to be a fisherman”, he says, “but a smart one.”