For a Living Ocean

Indigenous Peoples

Tribal Olympians

To celebrate the 2012 Olympic games, Survival International reveals some of the astonishing skills of the world’s tribal peoples, from the Awá archers of the Amazon to the Bajau divers of Borneo: Tribal Olympians.

“Scientists have discovered that the Bajau are submerged for up to 60% of the time they spend in the water, which is nearly as long as a sea-otter”. The source of this information comes from a research made by Erika Schagatay, Angelica Lodin-Sundström and Erik Abrahamsson during 2010 and 2011.  You can find the article here: Underwater working times in Ama and Bajau Divers

From the Survival International article: “Swifter, higher, stronger was the motto that Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, coined for the Olympic Games. How far can a Hamar man jump; how deep can a Bajau pearl-hunter dive?

The astonishing skills of tribal peoples are not only a measure of just how swift, high and strong we can be as humans – where our physical and mental limits lie – but an indicator of the extraordinary diversity of mankind.

In short, they show us – just as the Olympians will in the London 2012 Games – what it is to be human”.

Bajau and Moken kids with Great Underwater Vision

In the end of Decmber we visited Bajau Laut in Davao City, Philippines, where we went fishing and diving at the coast of Samal Island. The Bajau children in Davao learn how to dive in an early age. They have a superb underwater vision and learn how to fish with a harpoon in the age of ten.

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The researcher Anna Gislén at Lund University has studied the underwater vision of Moken children at the southern coast of Burma. She found that they have the capacity to maximally constrict their pupils and therefore focus on small objects under water. She has also shown that all children have the potential to see clearly under water – but they will have to practise for weeks. You can find the study here: Superior Underwater Vision in a Human Population of Sea Gypsies

Here you can also see a short BBC-movie about Moken’s ability to see clearly under water:

Article on Indigenous People’s Diving Skills

Swedish scientists have studied the diving skills of Ama in Japan and Bajau Laut in Philippines. The result is fascinating: the divers in both groups stay in general more than 50% of the working time under water while spearfishing or sea harvesting. Erika Schagatay, professor at the department of engineering and sustainable development at Mid Sweden University, has lead the study.

The study gives strong support to the idea that repeated diving has played an important role in the human evolution. Read the article here: Underwater working times in Ama and Bajau. The article was published in March 2011 in Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine.

Are they really poor?

Here comes some information about the Badjao community in Matina Aplaya, were I was living between February-April this year.

• One of 300 has a work in the regular job market
• Two have been studying in high school
• Almost no one of the elders can write or read
• Ten of approximately 150 children are in school
• Most people live on less than one dollar a day.

In a general life quality index Badjao is in the vey bottom, and they would have been a priority for organizations like Oxfam and Save the Children. But why? In fact, they are among the most active and smiling people I have met. They are living in a rich village life, the children are playing without computer games and a vast majority has healthy bodies. Even if they have small resources, we can consider them as happy and proud. How can we tell them that they are poor? How come that the Western living standard has become the norm for all people?

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During the history we have seen thousands of indigenous cultures being destroyed as roads, mining companies etc. have been spread over their land. Today many governments, corporations and politicians say that change is inevitable and that modern society will expand all over the world like a natural law. There seems to be nothing to do.

But Badjao is a living example of that change is not inevitable. They are still living as a distinct cultural group, their culture is more flourishing than ever, and even it they have been living next to the modern society for years, they still hold on to their lifestyle and traditions. And why not? You can’t force them to change under the flag of “inevitable change” or “development”.

Today the indigenous rights organizations are strengthen their positions. Organizations as Survival International and IWGIA promote the idea that indigenous small-scale cultures should be seen as small nations with their own land and sovereignty, and freedom to decide their own future.

So, let the Badjao children play with their boats, let the adults be illiterate, let them worship the coconut and let them arrange minor age marriages. And, most importantly, give them exclusive right to fishing water they have traditionally utilized. If you protect their land, you will protect their culture.