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.
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 there 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.
In the end of 2015 I together with three companions made a scientific expedition in Southeast Asia. We visited four different Sama Dilaut communities in Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia with the intention to meet some of the best Sama Dilaut divers. We stayed with several families, where we followed Sama Dilaut underwater fishing and made measurements in order to throw light on the physiological factors behind a diving based lifestyle.
The trip was partly funded by the Mid-Sweden University and planned by Erika Schagatay, Professor at department of Health Science at Mid-Sweden University. Other participants were Itamar Grinberg, a professional photographer and Orio Johansson, a third year Medicine student at Lund University, doing a project with Erika´s supervision.
We documented traditional Sama Dilaut fishing methods involving diving, as for example speargun fishing (”amana”), net fish drive (”ngambai”) and sea harvesting (anꞌbba”). We logged Sama Dilaut diving patterns using Ultra Sensus Loggers, in order to determine their diving depths and durations. We also measured their lung capacity in relation to height and weight, measured the size of the fishermen’s spleen´s which contract during diving and releases red blood cells, and determined their diving responses, a mammalian diving reflex that makes the pulse beats slower and redistribute blod to the more vital organs – all three important factors to become a successful diver.
Speargun-fishing in the Gulf of Davao
In the Philippines we visited the Sama DIlaut community of Matina Aplaya in Davao City, where some fishermen still rely almost exclusively on traditional breath-hold diving speargun fishing. For four days in a row we went fishing spending hours a day at sea in the picturesque environment of the Gulf of Davao. During the fishing trips the Sama Dilaut covered large distances by boat to reach good coral reefs for fish. However, the number of big fish is reducing and it’s getting increasingly difficult to make a living from fishing, although a big catch of coral fish now gives a higher price on the market today than it did in the past. The Sama Dilaut blame local speargun fishermen using compressed air at night for the decline in fish, even though large-scale commercial fishing is also common in the area.
At the same time, the Sama Dilaut are positive to newly established protected marine areas in former fishing grounds around Davao. ”If the fish gets a chance to grow up, it will eventually leave the sanctuary and benefit our fishing”, the community leader Edjie Adjari explained.
Fishing with the TV-star Kabei and his brother
In Indonesia we visited two Sama Dilaut communities outside the southeastern coast of Sulawesi. We revisited the village of Topa, where we went diving for two days with some of the most skilled divers, and logged their dives. We did also have the opportunity to witness a traditional healing ceremony which included offerings at sea.
In Sampela, Indonesia, we met the underwater fisherman Kabei and his brother Laudo, who were recently visited by BBC:s Will Millard for the series “Hunters of the South Seas”. You can see a clip of the program here: Spear fishing with the Bajau.
We followed the brothers and three other skilled diving fishermen from the community during two days of speargun and net drive fishing. Sampela is located within the Wakatobi National Park and only traditional fishing methods are allowed here. The difference from Davao was striking – in only a few hours of speargun fishing without moving anchorage the five fishermen caught more than 30 kg of coral fish. In the reef closest to the village, Kabei even managed to find two lobsters.
However, also in Sampela fish is on the decline and both an increasing pressure from commercial fishing boats and a rise in sea temperature are major threats. According to our host Pondang it is also common that fishermen from the village migrate to Johor or Ambon, where price for fish is higher. ”In Sampela the price for fish is still very low but the cost of staple food as cassava, rice and water increase”, Pondang explained. In Sampela we also went sea harvesting for tripang, sea urchins, clams and other types of shellfish with Sama Dilaut women and in one hour of diving they got a substantial catch. However, on the market in Mola, located in the biggest island Wakatobi, we concluded that the worth of the women’s catch was not more than a few dollars.
Stateless divers in Semporna, Malayia
In Semporna, Malaysia, we tried to come in contact with the world known free diver Sulbin who walks on the seafloor in another BBC production, Sea Bed Hunting On One Breath – Human Planet. However, he and other stateless people from the famous tourist island of Mabul had left for Kota Kinabalu for seasonal work. Luckily, we came in touch with other Sama divers, originating from the places as Sulbin, Siasi in the Philippines, and followed them fishing to Omadal island where fishing was good.
In Semporna many Sama Dilaut are still living their entire lives on traditional house boats. Thanks to marine sanctuaries and a strong marine tourism fish is still plenty in the region. However, only the coral reefs of Sipadan have recovered to close to what they used to be before the introduction of new, destructive fishing methods mainly in the early 1970’s (Sather 1997: 119). The traditional fishing methods used by the Sama Dilaut are more sustainable, as mainly the big fish are caught.
Preliminary Findings from the Expedition
The preliminary findings from our expedition is that Sama Dilaut fishermen regularly stay more than 50 % of their time submerged while spearfishing. A typical diving shift lasts for 2-3 hours and three such shifts can be carried out during one day. The best fishermen have an underwater bottom time on up to 60 % – as we also have concluded in earlier studies. The summarized findings from our expedition, including findings on lung capacity, the size of the spleen and the diving response, will be published later.
Sather. Clifford (1997) The Bajau Laut: Adaptation, History, and Fate in a Maritime Fishing Society of South-eastern Sabah. Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press.
A new report from WWF about the health of the world’s ocean was published o September 16, 2015. The Living Blue Planet Report provides a very accurate but also very sad picture of the state of the ocean:
- it shows a decline of 49% of marine populations between 1970 and 2012,
- worldwide, nearly, 20 per cent of mangrove cover was lost between 1980 and 2005,
- more that 5 trillion plastic pieses weighing over 250 000 tonnes are in the sea.
“In less than a human generation, we can see dramatic losses in ocean wildlife — they have declined by half — and their habitats have been degraded and destroyed,” said Mr Brad Ack, senior vice president for oceans at WWF.
Climate change and warmer oceans will make the situation worse, although fishing restrictions will be implemented. If current rates in temperature rise continue, the ocean will be come too warm for coral reefs by 2050. In this scenario it’s hard to see a future for Bajau Laut and other people who live on shallow water fishing and gathering.
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”.
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
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, 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
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 connections 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.
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.
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”, Erika Schagatay 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.
Sampela – 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.
676 Sama Dilaut 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Sama girl Nurlyn lives in a traditional houseboat (lepa) in Semporna. Her family is originally from the Philippines, from where they fled pirates and conflicts. It was 50 years ago – but now they are afraid of being sent back. They have no papers, no identification documents.
“I’m good at rowing a boat”, Nurlyn says in an article written by the Danish journalist Pia Kainø Jensen which was published in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen on July 18. “I am also a great swimmer and I can dive underwater just like the boys, and I can catch fish with spears. But I can not dive as deep as my father. My mother can also dive.”
You can see the front page of the magazine here (Mød havfolket) and read the article here: De har hjemme på havet (Danish). Many of the images in the article have been taken by me during my travels to Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Recently, another Sama girl from Mabul Island, Semporna, Malaysia, has become famous thanks to this YouTube clip where she rescues a boat from sinking and helps Asian tourists (the video has been viewed more than 2.4 million times):
Nurlyn and the girl on the boat are two of many Bajau Laut in Semporna lacking legal papers. They are in fact stateless: they can’t attend school, they have no right to medical care and they get no support from the government. On many islands, like on Mabul Island, they live next to luxurious tourist resorts. Here, children under 5 die due to infections next to snorkeling tourists from all over the world.
A large fire broke out on Friday night in Isla Verde, Davao City. The fire appears to have started in a kitchen in the community that largely consists of wooden houses. The fire spread quickly and was not under control until six hours later.
Isla Verde consists the largest Sama Community in Davao City, many of them are now homeless. The residents have been evacuated to a local school. One person has been reported dead. Manila Bulletin: Fire leaves thousands homeless in Davao City (2014-04-05)
The Sama community of Matina Aplaya was not affected.
At year-end, I and photographer Andreas Ragnatsson went to the Philippines and Malaysia to meet Sama Dilaut. In Davao, the Philippines, we spearfished with superb divers. In Semporna, Malaysia, we visited the islands of Bodgaya, Mabul, Sibuan and Maiga and talked to them who are still living on their “lepa” houseboats.
Different groups of Sama Dilaut
Sama Dilaut in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia can be divided into four groups, of which today only two are living on boats. The northernmost group is Sama Dilaut from Zamboanga, Basilan and Jolo, who are generally known as “Badjao” in the Philippines . They live today scattered over large parts of the Philippines, (eg, Davao, Manila, Cebu) where they fled after unrest in the Sulu Sea. None of them live on house boats today, but many still make a living from fishing and live along the shorelines.
The largest group of boat nomads is Sama Dilaut from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines . Most of these, however, have fled to Sabah, Malaysia, where many still live on their house boats. Today, there are no nomads left in Tawi-Tawi because of the unsecure situation in the region. Many Sama Dilaut house-dwellers in Semporna told me that they want to return to their boat-dwelling lifestyle, which make them more mobile and give them better fishing opportunities. For many it is only a matter of money – if they would afford it they would build a houseboat and return to the sea.
A closely related group to Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi is Sama Dilaut of Sitankai, Philippines, that used to live on the sea. Many of these people came to Semporna in the 60’s on their houseboats where they established the village Bangaw Bangaw. Today all of them live in houses
The fourth group is Sama Dilaut of Indonesia, who generally are called Indonesian Bajau. They speak a slightly different dialect than their relatives in the Sulu Sea but most words that are related to the sea are identical, as for example “amessi” (hook-and-line fishing), “amana” (speargun fishing) and “amosaj” (to paddle). Indonesian Bajau live over large parts of Sulawesi and even as far south as Flores. Today, only few Indonesian Bajau live on house boats and the number decreaces. Only ten years ago many Indonesian Bajau were boat-dwellers along the eastern coast of Sulawesi (eg, Lasolo) but today there are only few nomads in the Togian Gulf left.
The typhoon Haiyan hit the central parts of Philippines on November 8, and it is estimated that 5 000 people have died and more than 600 000 have been left homeless.
The last days many people have asked me how my friends in Davao have been affected by the storm – and I am happy to inform you that their village in Matina Aplaya were not hit. I have spoken to some members of the community and they told me that it rained and blew more than usual, but that their lives continue as usual. Davao City is located in the southern part of the Philippines, outside the area where the typhoon hit.
However, there are many Bajau Laut communities on islands like Cebu, Bohol and Leyte that were badly hit by the typhoon. It is not clear how these stilt villages have been affected. Most Bajau Laut in central Philippines are refugees from the long-going unrest in the Sulu Sea, located in the southwestern part of the Philippines. they have lived in poverty for a long time and this disaster has probably worsened their situation
More than 2,8 million people have seen BBC:s production “One breath”, featuring the Bajau Laut diver Sulbin. However, we don’t know much about the man. What reality is he living in? Helen Brunt, an anthropologist who spent eight years (2004-2012) in Sabah has written an article about Sulbin in Minority Voices: Malaysia: The story of an infamous, yet invisible Bajau man.
Sulbin lives on Mabul, one of the most popular tourist islands in the waters of Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia. Here more than 1 000 Bajau Laut have their dwellings (some are living on boats) and most of these people lack legal documents. Hence, they are stateless.
Sulbin and his wife have had seven children, but only two of them have survived infancy. Their youngest child were brought to hospital 2011 even if they were facing risk of deportation to the Philippines. The child didn’t survive and Sulbin and his wife recieved a medical bill for the treatment the child had received – they have to pay the same prize as uninsured foreigners.
On Mabul many Bajau Laut children die of childhood diseases, at the same time as tourists spend time in resorts enjoying the corals and night clubs.
Helen Brunt just completed her dissertation, ‘Stateless Stakeholders: Seen But Not Heard? The Case of the Sama Dilaut in Sabah, Malaysia‘, in which she problematize Bajau Laut’s statelessness and the complications to create well-anchored conversation projects. If people are stateless, how can they be fruitful stakeholders in national parks? First they have to be considered as legal human beings.
Here you can see Sulbin in action:
The winner of the Sama Freediving Contest, Juli Musuari reached 260 feet, or 79 meters. It is the deepest dive ever by a diver from the Philippines. Sama diving capabilities have been known for a long time, but it is not until now their dives have been measured by professional standards.
Totally 18 Sama from the Davao region participated in the contest, of whom five were from Matina Aplaya. Nasahali Musahali, a man from Matina Aplya, finished second, reaching 242 feet, or 72 meters.
The contestants were diving in the traditional Sama way, called Rod and Line. They were using rods of between 3-7 kilo to descend and were then pulled up by two partners on the boat. The competition consisted of three rounds. For information on all dives please visit Kadayawan Sama Freediving Contest 2013.
Here you can see the Silver Dive by Nasahali Musahali. As most other Sama in Davao he is originally from Zamboanga.
On August 15th Freediving Philippines are organizing a Sama freediving contest in Davao City. It will be held during the annual Kadayawan festival, that highlights the 11 indigenous tribes of Davao.
“Bajau are also indigenous to the Davao region”, writes Luke Schroeder on Sinama.org who is one of the organizers of the event. Totally 23 men are participating in the contest, all of whom have dived more than 80 feet. Ten men from the Sama Community of Matina Aplaya are participating.
Goals of the Event (from Sinama.org)
*Increase awareness in the Davao area about the Sama tribe. Many government offices and schools are unaware that the Sama are indigenous to the Davao region.
*Honor the Sama people. Overall perception of the Sama people in urban areas of the Filipinos is in many cases degrading towards them. Sama are a peace loving people and very hard working. We would like to make this known.
*Set national records for the sport of freediving.
*Provide opportunities for a few exceptionally skilled Sama divers.
Current Philippine Records (from Freediving-Philippines.com)
Static Apnea- 3:06 minutes by Villongco Zenon Alejandro Dario
Free Immersion- 32 meters by Carmelo Navarro
In the end of June I went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were I visited the National Museum. Here the remnants of the world’s most famous fossil, Lucy, can be found. The skeleton is 40% complete and is estimated to be 3.2 million years old.
Lucy was discovered in 1974 near Hadar in Ethiopia, by Donald Johanson and his colleague Maurice Taieb. She was classified as Australopithecus afarensis.Donald Johanson and others have suggested that Lucy had been living in a mosaic environment (forests, grasslands, lakes). However, the fossil of Lucy was found next to crocodile and turtle eggs and crab claws (Johanson & Taieb 1976).
Today the excavation site lies in a dessert, but 3, 2 million years ago the area were green and flourishing. Many scientists have suggested that Lucy fell in to a lake after she died – but perhaps lake margins was the biotope she preferred? Probably she was actually feeding from the lake.
Throughout the years, the so called Aquatic Ape Theory has been ridiculed – even if the most famous fossil was found next to crocodile eggs and crab claws.
However, the distinct adaptation to a water-based lifestyle took place later. Homo Erectus was probably much more adapted to an littoral environment than her Australopithecine forefathers – as a swimmer and free-diver (see earlier posts).
In the National Museum of Ethiopia you can also find see the skulls of Omo 1 and Omo 2, the oldest fossils of Homo Sapiens ever found. They are estimated to be around 190 000 years old. Today, the Omo Valley of Ethiopia is one of the most unique places on earth because of the wide variety of people.
Johanson, D.C., and Taieb, M., 1976, Plio-Pleistocene hominid discoveries in Hadar, Ethiopia: Nature, v. 260, p. 293–297
During the Conference on Human Evolution in London me and Erika Schagaty presented a poster about sea nomads in Southeast Asia, where we summarize some of the key observations and conclusions we have made during our work with Bajau Laut. Erika Schagatay met Bajau Lautin eastern Indonesia and Orang Laut in western Indonesia already in the 1980s.
Abrahamsson, E and Schagatay E. (2013-05-09) Sea People – Southeast Asia.
Presented at Human Evolution Past, Present & Future – Anthropological, Medical & Nutritional Considerations
Between 8th-10th on May researchers from all over the world gathered in London, presenting new research on human evolution, health and migration – with focus on the so called waterside theory. During the conference we could hear about swimming babies, water births, free diving, indigenous diving, underwater vision, surfer’s ear, coastal migration, bipedalism, aquatic mammals and much more.
Outspoken critics to the aquatic ape theory were also present, as for example Donald Johanson and John H. Langdon. Already in the first session, Donald Johanson declared that the so called aquatic ape theory is nonsense – before he had even heard the arguments that were to be presented during the conference.
The Aquatic Ape Theory has changed since it was first publicized by Alister Hardy and Elaine Morgan. Initially most proponents suggested that human ancestors spent a period of time on the coastlines after the separation from the forefather of the chimpanzee (5-7 million years ago), and then left for land. But nowadays many of the leading waterside scientists suggest that the evolution to a marine environment continued.
Marc Verhaegen – one of the organizers of the conference – presented a controversial idea that Homo Erectus likely were shallow water divers. As a matter of fact their migration out of Africa was made exclusively along coastlines or rivers, and Homo Erectus had much larger brains and skulls than their predecessors (among many marine animals big skulls are equivalent to shallow diving). According to Verhaegen, Homo Erectus were much more adapted to a marine environment than for example Lucy and her species Australopithecus Afarensis. It is now clear that our big brains and sinuses as well as our voluntarily breath control evolved during Homo Erectus time on earth – which is highly likeable due to a rich intake of marine food and much time spent in water. Probably did also physiological traits as the human diving response, neonatal swimming reflexes and diving reflex evolve over time, not only during a short period of time 5-7 million years ago.
Hence, human evolution in an aquatic environment water was not only a historic incident that took place in Africa millions of years ago, but was an ongoing process throughout evolution of human beings. Our present aquatic adaptations are not remnants from an old way of living, as initially suggested by professor Alister Hardy and Elaine Morgan, but adaptations that were crucial also in the emergence of Homo Sapiens 200 000 years ago.
However, this theory is hard to accept within the anthropological community as they strongly emphasize a mosaic environment, suggesting that human beings were living in different environments throughout human history, just as we are living today. Human beings are thought to be able to live in any kind of environment and are not considered to be environmental specialists. But we can’t ignore that Homo Sapiens during most of her time as a living species has been living in an tropical environment feeding from an marine environment. As a matter of fact, we started to live on dry open spaces, like savannahs, much later.
Several newspapers wrote about the Human Evolution Conference, partly misunderstanding and misinterpreting the waterside theory. For example, Independent asked if “did humans come from the sea instead from the trees?”
Then – what can we learn from the new perspectives in the waterside theory? We have to start to accept that human beings have evolved in the same way as all other creatures – living predominantly in one habitat occupying only a small number of niches. We have not always been environmental generalists and we are still today – physiologically and biologically – much more adapted to a life along coastlines than a life on mountains or savannahs.
The world’s fish stocks are decreasing. It is estimateds that 90 % of all big fish are already gone. Dr. Michael Crawford, of Imperial College London, sys that “without plentiful DHA, we face a future of increased mental illness and intellectual deterioration. We need to face up to that urgently”. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid found in seafood. You can find the article in Mail Online here: Early human ancestors were ‘aquatic apes’: Living in water helped us evolve big brains and walk upright, scientists say.
Michael Crawford – one of the speakers at the Human Evolution onference in London 8-10th of May – states that Docosahexaenoic acid have been crucial for the development of our brains (as well as for other mammals making a living from the sea). According to Crawford we should eat 40 gram fish per day, 200 days a year.
However, by improving our mental health we will also completely undermine the marine stocks – and what will happen when we are another two billion people on the earth? Add overfishing to pollution, climate change and habitat destruction, and a picture of a system in crisis emerges.
In the conference, scientists will present new research and evidence highlighting the connection between humans and an aquatic lifestyle, as for example breath-hold diving, sea food/nutrition and water birth. Among the invited guests are Donald Johanson (the discoverer of Lucy) and David Attenborough (broadcaster and naturalist).
This conference clearly indicates that the Waterside-hypothesis (popularly the Aquatic Ape Theory) is getting more accepted in the scientific community. More and more scientists are now accepting that water has played an important role in human evolution, but the question is how big the aquatic impact has been.
Here you can find the program: Human Evolution Past, Present & Future – Anthropological, Medical & Nutritional Considerations.
Change in the programme for the second day: Day 2. Scars of Evolution
Visitors are welcome to admit posters on human evolution that will be presented during the conference. Prof. Erika Schagatay at Mid-Sweden University and I will present a poster on sea nomads of Southeast Asia focusing on their underwater vision, breath-hold diving and sea harvesting skills – characteristics that demonstrate that human beings still today can be highly adapted to the sea. I have also been invited to give a speech on Bajau Laut and their adaptations to the sea. See you in London!
Bajau Laut have been living in Southeast Sulawesi since the 16th century. Originally, they were involved in the spice trade, transporting lucrative spices from Moluccas to Borneo. When the Dutch colonialists changed the trade routes many Bajau Laut stayed on their houseboats made a living completely from sea harvesting. Some do still today.
WWF in Wakatobi
In one of the villages of Buton, Lasalimu, I met Sadar, a Bajau who works for WWF in Wakatobi. His work is to persuade Bajau fishermen stop dynamite fishing. “In Wakatobi we have been quite successful but further north many Bajau use fish bombs and cyanide”.
In Wakatobi most fishermen make a living from skin diving, as compressors are illegal. “We also try to regulate how much fish they can catch a day”, Sadar told me, “it is necessary because they are fishing in Wakatobi National Park”.
Sadar also told me that it still is practice among some Bajau to throw the placenta in the ocean after giving birth. They believe that the child will protect the sea as “it is the home of their sibling”. You can read more in this article in Al Jazeera: Indonesia’s last nomadic sea gypsies (2012-10-06).
Born on the sea
After my visit in Buton I headed north to Lasolo where many Bajau Laut are living on small, isolated islands. Around these islands, many Bajau used to live on the boats till only a few years ago. More or less everyone above 10 years old were born on the sea.
The author of Outcasts of the Islands, Sebastian Hope, visited Lasolo in the last decade and met sea nomads close to Boenaga and island of Labengke in Lasolo. But today all of them are living in houses.
In the Gulf of Togian in northern Sulawesi, however, it is still possible to find Bajau Laut who have been on the boat their entire lives.
Sama Language – spread over the Coral Triangle
Throughout The Coral Triangle you can find pockets of Sama communities, distinctive from the surrounding society, but speaking more or less the same language as other Sama groups living miles away.
It has been very interesting to be able to meet Sama people in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and compare their dialects. As a matter of fact, there are still many similarities in their languages. For example, most words related to their maritime lifestyle are identical in all dialects I have encountered, like “amana” (spear-gun fishing) “messi” (hook-and-line fishing), “anga ringi” (netfishing), “e‘bong” (dolphin), “kalitan” (shark), “bokko´” (turtle), “gojak” (waves), “mosaj” (to paddle).
During my next Indonesian trip I would like to visit Flores, not far from Australia … probably they will speak a similar dialect here as well… But that will be explored during another journey. Now I am heading back to Semporna.
In Eastern Kalimantan, Borneo, Bajau Laut have been living for generations. Originally they arrived on houseboats from the Sulu Sea.
I visited Derawan Islands where I stayed for one week. It is a tourist paradise with excellent diving spots and fascinating sea creatures as manta rays and hawksbill sea turtles. Most people on the islands are Bajau and they speak more or less the same dialect as in Semporna, Malaysia. I was pleased to see that most children still speak Sinama – and they were spending their afternoons swimming and playing next to sea turtles in the shallow waters.
Derawan Islands consist of a large number of island, of whom two are inhabited – Pulau Derawan and Pulau Maratua. The islands are far from as exploited as for example Mabul in Semporna, and all resorts are owned and run by local people.
One of the islands, Sanalaki, is well-known for their hawksbill turtles and coral manta ray . Here visitors can swim with the giant rays and watch the turtles when they enter the beach at night laying their eggs. On the island of Kakaban you can also find a lake full of jellyfish – but they are completely harmless.
Recently, many Sama Dilaut used to stay in the area, moving between Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia in search for fishing grounds. But today there are no nomads left, as the Indonesian government repeatedly have confiscated their boats and sent them back to Malaysia. They are not welcome as they lack legal papers.
The local people control the islands – they where empty when Bajau settled here for more than 100 years ago. “I want Sanalaki to become as Sipadan in Malaysia”, one local Bajau dive operator told me, “a tourist heaven and a sanctuary”.
The Derawan Islands are also important for the Indonesian live fish trade. From here, great numbers of lobster and groupers are transported to Surabaya on Java and Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia. Much of the fish end up on luxury restaurants in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
After Derawan I am heading towards Southeast Sulawesi where I will visit Bajo Laut, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years. They are distant relatives to Bajau Laut in the Sulu Sea, but much of their lifestyle are the same. Once again I will visit the village Topa which I went to almost two years ago – following the footsteps of Erika Schagatay, who was there for more than 20 years ago.