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Indonesia's Sea Gypsies Struggle to Survive

  • Marianne Kearney

The Orang Bajau or sea gypsies of Sulawesi in Indonesia have roamed the seas for generations, using their renowned sea-faring skills and simple implements to make a living. But their traditional lifestyle is under threat as they compete for catch with illegal fishing boats from Taiwan and the Philippines, and with Indonesian fisherman who use cyanide bombs. Marianne Kearney reports from the Kendari coastal district in Sulawesi province, Indonesia.

The news is broadcast in Bahasa Bajau, the language of the ethnic Bajau or sea gypsies.

Every Wednesday night a group of Kendari's sea gypsies broadcast to their community, which stretches all the way from Aceh in the west of Indonesia to Papua in the east.

Historically the Bajau used their seafaring skills to protect the southern Sulawesi kingdom. They lived in small groups moving from fishing ground to fishing ground.

But today, in southeast Sulawesi, they mostly live in small villages built over the water, and have abandoned their wooden canoes called Leppa.

Asman Junaidi, head of a Bajau family, says he makes just two to three dollars a day, which is barely enough to feed his family. He says one problem is that the waters are heavily fished, with boats coming in from other areas.

"Now, there are lots of people who come from outside to look for fish. For example, there are people from Makassar, who come here just to look for fish," he said. "So for us people here - it makes it difficult for us, because the outsiders come to these waters."

In Junaidi's village of Mekar, in southeast Sulawesi, most of the fishing families are scraping by, despite trading in their tough mobile existence for a more settled life.

When they moved here 20 years ago as part of a government plan, many hoped they would get the benefits of modern life, such as access to schooling, water and sanitation.

But the village is remote and facilities fall into disrepair. While the Bajau enjoy some rudimentary facilities, such as electricity and basic education, they are still poorer than other ethnic groups here.

Many Bajau still use their traditional methods of fishing - using nets and spears to haul in their catch. Parmen is from LEPDES, an environmental group active in the Bajau areas. He notes that the Bajau's competitors use fish bombs or dragnets.

"It's because fisherman from outside have sophisticated equipment, but the Bajau fisherman here only have traditional tools. There are even some boats from foreign countries," he said. "We see the boats from Philippines, Taiwan. With their modern equipment they take all the good fish, and just leave the small ones."

Parmen says another problem is that the Bajau are poorly educated and do not understand how to market their fish or get good prices.

Many adult Bajau have only minimal schooling. They would like to see their children better educated. But they struggle to pay the transport costs to educate their children beyond primary school.

Ambo Lewa, one of the radio presenters, says this is part of the idea behind the Bajau radio program. He said his programs try to communicate to listeners the need to improve Bajau knowledge and use of technology, so that Bajau are not left behind. He stresses the need for Bajau to go to school to build their future. He broadcasts programs about how technology can be used to cope with the processes of globalization that are already affecting their daily lives. He wants his programs to spread skills and information to help the Bajau cope with modern problems.

Lewa says he also tries to instill pride in the Bajau, their history and their language, so that the Bajau will not be ashamed of their traditional ways.

The environmental group LEPDES is trying to educate the Bajau about the advantages of using Bajau traditions of respecting the environment to ensure that future generations can still survive from fishing.

Parmen, from LEPDES, says the protection of coral reefs and rehabilitation of mangroves is key.

"We help them to find ways to preservation of their life, how can preserve the life of the sea, the coral, to plant mangrove to rehabilitate the coast which has been damaged," he said. "People here now understand the importance of coral, if they increase coral then there will be more fish."

Parmen admits that despite the environmental benefits of some traditional methods, other aspects of Bajau life need to be modernized. Many Bajau do not have toilets or access to running water.

The Bajau are not alone in their struggles. They trace their roots and their language back to Johor in Malaysia, believing they originated from Johor, moving to Sulawesi in the 17th century.

Other sea-borne communities exist in the waters around Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Burma.

All of them face competition from large-scale fishing trawler operations, arriving from more developed northern Asian countries or elsewhere.

The Bajau are trying to adjust - with the help of radio programs and some education.

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