For a Living Ocean

Attending 1st Sama Dilaut Conference in Tawi-Tawi

Between December 1 and 3 I participated in the 1st Sama Dilaut (Philippine Badjao) International Conference on Sanga-Sanga Island, Tawi-Tawi. I was invited to make a presentation about our previous research on the Sama Dilaut, together with research colleague Professor Erika Schagatay. More than 200 people attended the conference, including local Sama Dilaut elders, researchers from Philippines, USA, Sweden and Japan, local government officials, filmmakers from USA and representatives from the Philippine council of UNHCR.

The conference was surrounded by a lot of security precautions due the insecure political situation throughout southwestern Philippines. The co-chairman of the conference Professor Abduljim Hassan from Mindanao State University, was very happy to receive international guests, not only as it showed there is an international interest for this conference but also as their presence send a signal of stability in the Tawi-Tawi region. ”After the French terrorist attacks I thought that none foreigner would come”, he said, “but I was very glad when I heard that they would come to attend the conference.”

In addition to academic presentations the conference included cultural exhibitions about Sama Dilaut, as for example traditional dance and music, and a silent theater depicting the traditional boat life of Sama Dilaut. In the last day of the conference we also got the opportunity to visit the island of Siminul which is home to the oldest mosque in the Philippines.

Subsistence Diving Among Sama Dilaut

During the conference, Erika Schagatay and I presented an abstract titled ”Three profitable freediving strategies used by the Sama Bajau – marine hunter-gatherers ”, in which we described traditional freediving speargun fishing, net fish drive  by divers and see harvesting of tripang and shell fish. We showed the important physiological adaptations in humans that make it possible for them to lead a lifestyle based on freediving. Our full article will be published in the beginning of 2016.

We also gave examples of the fact that many Sama Dilaut still lead a successful traditional life in many places despite the hardships they face in many regions throughout Southeast Asia, where over fishing with modern equipment threatens their way of life. Hence, we should not only talk about the problems facing the Sama Dilaut, but also about their unique and beautiful lifestyle and its prerequisites, and how it can contribute to a sustainable use of marine resources.

Anthropologist Harry Nimmo is still Remembered in Tawi-Tawi

In the first day of the conference we also had the opportunity to listen to a recent filmed interview with the anthropologist Harry Nimmo, who made long field work among the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi in the 1960’s. The film was made by the filmmakers Alice Dugan and Marlene Skrobe, which attended the conference. Harry Nimmo, the writer of the book “Magosaha – An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut”, depicted Sama Dilaut’s boat living lifestyle back in the 60’s and told how their lives were influenced by tidal waves, winds and currents. A few Sama Dilaut elders who attended the conference said that they still remember Harry Nimmo from his earliest field work. “He had his own houseboat”, one man said.513M4xdleLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In the filmed interview Nimmo also said that much of the lifestyle that he encountered in Tawi-Tawi during the 60’s had disappeared when he later returned for short trips in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s. However, we should keep in mind that many of the elements that were described in his book Magosaha can still be found in other parts of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. In Semporna, Malaysia, to where many Sama Dilaut from Tawi-Tawi have fled during later years, hundreds of Sama Dilaut now live in houseboats. In Sitangkai, Philippines, big traditional healing ceremonies are still being held on an annual basis. In Davao, Philippines, and in Sulawesi, Indonesia, traditional speargun fishing with homemade googles, spearguns and swimming feet is still thriving. In Sampela, Indonesia, many Sama Dilaut still place the placenta – “the twin child” – in the ocean after birth, just to give some examples.

Sama Dilaut Elders Expressed their Concerns

Many Sama Dilaut elders from Tawi-Tawi who participated in the conference raised their concerns about their everyday life. One recurring point was that their catches often gets stolen at sea. Another major concern was that they have to rent the land where they live, and that there was not any land where they could bury their dead. They also said that many of their relatives have fled to Sabah, Malaysia and that they cannot see their relatives because of national borders, despite the fact that they are living close to each other in geographical terms. ”I haven’t seen many of my children for decades”, an elderly Sama Dilaut woman said.

Rosalyn Dawila Venning from the Malaysian NGO PKPKM Sabah explained that the Sama Dilaut of Semporna do not have any right to schooling or medical care and they are under a constant threat of deportation. Helen Brunt, a British anthropologist who has stayed in Sabah for seven years, was supposed to make an online presentation about the Sama Dilaut in Semporna, but couldn’t do so because of technical issues. She has written about Sama Dilaut’s difficult situation in her dissertation thesis: ‘Stateless Stakeholders: Seen But Not Heard?

According to Rosalyn Dawina Venning certain “house boat” passports were once issued to secure Sama Dilaut’s right to freely roam the waters of Philippines and Malaysia, but these passports were early exploited by other groups for illegal fishing and crossing of borders. One member of the audience claimed that he himself had managed to get a “house boat” or “lepa” passport a couple of decades ago even if he is not a Sama Dilaut. “There was an inflation in passports”, he said, “and the Sama Dilaut had to suffer; now they lack documents to legally cross borders again”.

“Badjao”– a term Dismissed by the Sama Dilaut

In Philippines, the word Badjao is being used to denote the Sama Dilaut, and they are now known throughout the country in big cities as Manila, Cebu and Iloilo as coin divers, recycled drum musicians, beggars and street vendors of pearls and second hand clothes. However, as concluded by Nazer H. Aliaza in his presentation “The Sama Dilaut (Badjao) Migrant in Metro Manila” very few of the Sama Dilaut who live in major Philippine towns are actually from Tawi-Tawi. In fact, none of the families interviewed by Nazer H. Aliza in Manila came from Tawi-Tawi, but from Zamboanga, Basilan and Jolo in the northern Sulu.

Accordning to Harry Nimmo there have been three groups of Sama Dilaut that have traditionally lived on boats, one from Tawi-Tawi, one from Sitankai and one from northern Sulu. Hence, when the Sama Dilaut are mentioned in Philippine media as “Badjao” it is mostly the northern group that are stressed. Unfortunately, no representatives of this population participated in this conference and I think it is crucial that also they get the opportunity to speak in any future Sama Dilaut conference. The term “Badjao” is a derogatory term which is neglected by literally all Sama Dilaut in Philippines, and the word should not be used.

Are they Refugees or Internally Displaced Peoples?

One of the organizations that attended the conference was The Philippine Council of UNHCR who discussed UN:s role in facing the hardships of Sama Dilaut. According to the spokesperson of UNHCR the Sama Dilaut who are displaced within the Philippines can’t be recognized as refugees since they have not left any national border. It is also questionable if the Sama Dilaut who have fled to Malaysia can be considered as refugees, because there is still a border conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia about the Sabah region in eastern Malaysia. ”The border is not yet established”, the spokesperson from UNHCR explained. There is also a matter of ancestral territory. “The Sama Dilaut has roomed the waters of southwestern Philippines and eastern Malaysia for centuries, so the flight by Sama Dilaut from Philippines to Malaysia will not automatically be considered as a flight from one national state to another, but rather as a movement within their ancestral domain”, the spokesperson told me. In the meantime the Sama Dilaut of Sabah suffer a lot, and without a refugee status they cannot get the attention their problems deserve, a major one being that they seem not to be considered to belong anywhere. In that sense they are “homeless” despite a long history in these waters and archipelagos.

Marine Reserves – Will they Benefit Sama Dilaut?

There were also discussions about marine reserves during the conference. Some Sama Dilaut wanted newly established reserves in the Tawi-Tawi region to be available for fishing, while marine conservatists claimed that the reserves are crucial for a sustainable fishing and that “no take zones” will benefit the whole region. The marine biologist Dr. Filemon G. Romero, he himself a Sama, claimed that the main reason why many Sama Dilaut have left the Sulu Sea for either urban Philippine areas or the Malaysian coast of Sabah is not only because of the unrest in the region, but because of reducing populations of fish. ”In recent decades there1st International Sama Dilaut Conference, Tawi-Tawi 2015 has also been a drastic decline in fish”, Dr. Filemon G. Romero explained. “Marine reserves are crucial for the survival of the Sama Dilaut in the Philippines”, he said.

“Sama Dilaut are Marine Biologists”

Erika Schagatay pointed out that the Sama Dilaut are experts – they are actually marine biologists. “We should learn from them”, she said and many people agreed. Sama Dilaut are really experts on the marine life, they know most species of fish and invertebrates, and they have a deep knowledge on animal ethology, sea currents, tides and weather conditions. But nevertheless, destructive fishing methods are being used by many groups in the region, and also among some Sama Dilaut. There is an old belief among Sama Dilaut that fish will always be re-created, which was likely true using only traditional fishing methods. With the introduction of commercial big fishing boats and less sustainable fishing methods a deeper understanding of the ocean’s vulnerability must be disseminated among the Sama Dilaut and other fishing groups across the Sulu Sea. It was pointed out that in some regions of Indonesia, nature reserves combined with traditional Sama fishing had been successfully combined.

Sama Dilaut Future

During the ending discussions of the conference it was a pleasure to see how the speeches of Sama Dilaut elders were received. No one received as much applause and encouragement as they did, even if their talks were only briefly translated to English. But their main problems being that have no land, little income and no political power – how will their situation best be improved?

The real issues about security and access to land were not discussed in proper detail. However, it is good that scientist and decision makers have met and started to discuss these crucial questions. It is also very important to give international attention to the topic. If international actors put pressure on local decision makers, change will be more likely to take place. However, representatives from Malaysian and Indonesian local and national authorities were absent. Perhaps an important step is to realize the common issues concerning the Sama populations across these nations?

If the international community puts pressure on the national governments of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia, so that Sama Dilaut get fully recognized by local and national authorities and their deserved rights –, if well managed national marine reserves are formed with only traditional or no fishing allowed, and  if zero tolerance for large-scale and environmentally harmful fishing is introduced in key regions, and resources provided to enforce these rules – then both the sustainable life of Sama Dilaut and the waters of the very heart of the coral triangle might face a bright future.


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