For a Living Ocean


1st International Conference on Sama Dilaut, December 1-3, Tawi-Tawi

The first Sama Dilaut International Conference will be held December 1-3 in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines. Among the invited scholars are Prof. Harry Arlo Nimmo, who made extensive fieldworks among Sama Dilaut in Tawi-Tawi in the 60’s. He has written the book Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilau and the memoir The Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu.

The conference is organized by Sama Studies Center and aims to open a dialouge between scholars, scientists, statesmen and development actors with the Sama Dilaut themselves. The meeting will be “an opportunity to look back to what has always been held by the Sama Dilaut as their life-ways since time immemorial and as traditional, and to commit to give them renewed winds to sail and to secure abundant seas that may facilitate their journey to reclaim their space and reorder their present realities”.

1st Sama Dilaut Conferense

Objectives of the conference:

  • To strengthen research and encourage academic interest on the plight and situation of the Sama Dilaut (Badjao) by highlighting their roles in the social and cultural development of the Sama society, and their contributions to the dynamics of maritime and sea-based economy in Tawi-Tawi and the Philippine waters, and the impact and consequences of geopolitics in Southeast Asian region in this roles and contributions;
  • To discuss development models and survey affirmative actions, and evaluate empowerment programs and interventions for this most marginalized of Sama ethnic communities; and
  • To provide venue and spaces for the Sama Dilaut to tell their narratives and as well as for listening to alternative voices speaking as interlocutors for Sama Dilaut issues.

More information about the conference can be found here: Sama Dilaut International Conference

Difficult Situation for Sama Dilaut in Sabah

In late April and early May, I traveled to Sabah, Malaysia, to meet Sama Dilaut and learn more about their present situation. I visited many islands in the Semporna region making interviews about their livelihood and challenges. Still there are many houseboats in the region and I could also see new houseboats being built. Livelihood is still good but fish is on decline in the region.

Most Sama Dilaut in Malaysia are stateless. They have no legal right to stay in Malaysia and they face risk of deportation to the Philippines. However, Sama Dilaut Denawan Semporna many boat nomadic and traditional Sama people have certain “lepa passports” (or boat dwelling passports) that assure them to stay in Malaysia, but these documents are expensive and difficult to renew. In practice, Sama Dilaut run little risk of arrest and deportation as long as they stay in the islands but many of them are afraid of entering Semporna town. When they enter the harbor to sell their fish and buy water, gasoline, cassava and other staples they use middlemen. Many Sama Dilaut do never enter town and they rely on land-dwelling Bajau people with Malaysian IC for all trade. Being stateless do also mean that you can’t get medical care, education and demand for basic social security.

IC Raids in Semporna and Lahad Datu

Raids are common – several times I have witnessed Malaysian police and military making raids in the harbor of Semporna looking for people without legal documents. One time young people threw themselves into the water to stay away from authorities. I have also seen many migrants being sent back to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines, of whom many have lived in Malaysia for decades or have even been born here

One very poor and vulnerable Sama Dilaut community is the Sama Dilaut community in the town of Lahad Datu. In January this year many of the people in the community, including families, were arrested by Malaysian authorities and sent to Tawau, a larger neighbouring city of Semporna. Some managed to run away and started to make a living in Lahad Datu islands. Others were deported to Philippines and eventually made it back to Philippines. During the last trip I met Sama people from Lahad Datu in the small island of Tobalanos in the Semporna region, whom told me that they had been sent to Philippines and then come back again. No one wants to live in the Philippines.

Sama Dilaut Put in Indonesian Camp Released

Last year I reported about Sama Dilaut people from Semporna had been caught for illegal fishing in Kalimantan, Indonesia, and put in a camp in Tanjung Baru. Most of these people came from the islands of Denawan, Omadal and Maiga outside of Semporna. Now, all these people have been released and I talked to many Sama people who had been detained for more than two months. They told me that they had been away for “magosaha” (approximately: search for livelihood) and they said that they will never go back to Indonesia.

Children Live in a Very Difficult Situation

View from Sama Dilaut House on Mabul

View from Sama Dilaut House on Mabul Island

Sama Dilaut children have a very difficult situation. They have no access to medical treatment and schooling. At the same time there is a big population growth in the area and the marine life is limited. Commercial fishing boats are on the increase and destructive fishing methods, as dynamite fishing, is still in practice, also among Sama Dilaut. On islands like Mabul malnourished children die in infections next to partying tourists. Sometimes families stay one day without food.

No one takes the responsibility. Malaysian authorities do not recognize them as citizens and most resorts renounce social responsibility. Most Sama Dilaut completely rely on social connectionMabul Childrens with people who live under the same difficult situation as them.

Of course, tourism is crucial in order to secure the rich marine life in the area but by utilizing land that have traditionally been used by indigenous peoples you also have to a take social responsibility – and you can’t take it for granted that the local authorities will do so. Resorts should take a bigger social responsibility on the islands they are working on.

Human Photo Safaris

In Semporna human photo safaris are on increase. Many boats leave Semporna harbor every day and head off against islands like Maiga, Bodgaya, Omadal, Nusatenga etc. Sama Dilaut gets exploited as safari boats go up near to their houses and boats taking intrusive photos. Children are encouraged to jump from small houses in exchange for sweets. The tourists, of whom most are Asians, pay a lot of money to the organizers of these trips, but little is sent back to the people that is used in much of the international marketing of the Semporna region.

New BBC production about the Bajau released

On April 19 BBC released the first episode of three of the “Hunters of the South Seas”. The video shows Bajau fishing and diving, animistic beliefs and everyday life in the village of Sampela, southeast of Sulawesi. The movie is only available in UK but a small clip can be seen in other countries as well.

The video can be seen here: Spear fishing with the Bajau – Hunters of the South Seas

BBC has made many productions of Bajau over the years, of which the best known is Sea Bed Hunting On One Breath – Human Planet.


Bajau in Sulawesi – Boat life, Diving and Traditional Fishing Methods

For three weeks I have been travelling in Sulawesi, Indonesia, where I have visited three different Bajau communities. In the beginning I was travelling with professor Erika Schagatay (Department of Health Sciences) who re-visited a Bajau community in Kamaru, Buton, after 26 years.

“The equipment has changed, but many of the houses and the boats look just like before”, ErikaSchagatay said. ”Today many spearfishers use fins and modern masks which they didn’t do in the 1980’s”. Sometimes they also dive using a compressor, in addition to the more common breath-hold diving.  During the stay we measured the lung capacity of some of the divers and found that the divers have a big lung capacity for their height compared to people in the wider community who do not live as divers.

Sanpela – A Bajau Community in the Heart of a National park

In the Bajau community Sanpela in Wakatobi many traditional fishing methods are still used, and equipment is still mostly only wooden goggles. Many households do not have a boat with engine and use only paddle and sails. Also women are fishing and many of them do regularly dive for seashell, trepang and clams in shallow waters.

One common fishing method is called “ngambaj” in which several fishing boats gather and use nets to surrond coral fish while others hits the water and try to chase the fish against the net. They are also using harpoons to spear bigger fish surrounded by the nets. This fishing method is also used in the Philippines and Malaysia – but I have never witnessed a more succesful “ngambaj” than in Sanpela where each fisherman got more than 10 kilo of fish. Here, in the Wakatobi National Park fish is plenty and many of the corals are intact.

WWF Indonesia has worked a lot in the area to promote traditional fishing methods and educate people on the vulnerability of the marine ecosystems. In other parts of Sulawesi fish bombs and cyanide are common, but in Wakatobi these methods are very rare nowadays.

Pongka – They Stay Several Weeks at Sea at a Time

In Torosiaje – a Bajau village highlighed by the British award-winning photojournalist James Morgan, many Bajau still do “pongka”. They stay at sea for weeks and sleep in their boat (”lepa”). When I was there a few fishermen were planning for longer fishing trips to remote islands. However, no one here is still living permanently in the boat and it seems unlikely that there still are Bajau boat nomads left in Sulawesi. Pongka is a way of life depicted in the German/French movie Sulawesi, the last See nomads.

Bajau – one of the Most Widespread Peoples of Southeast Asia

In Sulawesi there are approximately 150 Bajau communities, according to the study Mapping Indonesian Bajau Communities in Sulawesi. There are also plenty of Bajau communities in such scattered islands as East Java, West Nusa Tenggara, Molucca and Papua. Between these communities language differs only slightly, and it has been found that not less than 90 % of the words used in the Bajau communities in Sulawesi are identical – unlike in the Sulu Sea, Philippines, where dialects are plenty. In Sulu, every single island can has its own Bajau (Sinama) dialect.

The Bajau is one of the most spread indigenous peoples in Sotheast Asia, but they are always a minority population. They live in pockets throughout Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei and in the eastern part of Malaysia. It is their historical nomadic lifestyle and search for vibrant coral reefs with good fishing and trade that have made them so widespread.

Stateless Sama Dilaut Boat Nomads Put in Indonesian Camp

676 Sama Dilaut and have been put in a camp for illegal fishermen in Tanjung Batu in Indonesia. They came in their houseboats from Semporna, from where thay had been chased away by the Malaysian authorities because they have no legal documents and are thought to distrurb the tourists.Di Lao Berau Post

At the same time, the newly elected government in Indonesia wants to stop illegal fishermen and they have made several raids in the ocean outside of Kalimantan where hundreds of boats have been seized (among them the Sama houseboats).

The Sama Dilaut were initially supposed to be released and sent back to Malaysian waters on December 17 and, but Malaysia and Indonesia are still arguing about who’s responsibility it is to handle the problem. As most Sama Dilaut are stateless no one wants to take the responsibility. Sama nomads are stuck between two national states – even if they have moved into these waters for centuries

Berau Post and a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenskan, have reported from the incident but others seem to be silent. They have been in the camp for over a month.

A Two-Month Long Trip in Southeast Asia Starts

For two months I will be travelling in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines where I will be living with the sea nomads Bajau Laut. It will be a time of fishing, diving and ethnography!

In the beginning, I will travel with Professor Erika Schagatay at Mid Sweden University in Sulawesi, Indonesia, who will visit the same Bajau village as she visited in 1988. We will also visit the Tukangbesi islands outside of Sulawesi and learn more about Sama diving skills.

Article in Human Evolution – an international Journal

In the aftermath of the conference Human Evolution Past, Present & Future – Anthropological, Medical & Nutritional Considerations in 2013 the journal Human Evolution – an International Journal decided that they would bring out a special issue on the Aquatic ape hypothesis. I and professor Erika Schagatay submitted an article titled A Living Based on Breath-Hold Diving in the Bajau Laut, where we present new dive data that has been measured during 2013.


The conclusion of our paper is that there is potential in man to live a life on subsistence diving, which is possible thanks to the strong human diving response and good swimming ability. The important thing for subsistence divers are not to stay as long as possible in the water on any given dive, but to maximize the bottom time during a longer time of diving.

Man’s ability to live from and in water is drastically different from our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. However, several human characteristics such as absence of body hair, a strong diving response and a large spleen are also present in marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. It is also important to keep in mind that all aquatic mammals previously lived on land. The idea that ealso humans have spent a long time close to water during her evolution is not too far-fetched after all.

You can read the full article here: A Living Based on Breath-Hold diving in the Bajau Laut Diving.


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