Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Missing the boat?

Chris Majors and Joanna Swiecicka

Today most Bajo sea nomads live a settled lifestyle. Many have integrated into other coastal communities, and some have even given up fishing to become farmers. Government schemes have moved many Bajo communities onto land and encouraged them to take up agriculture. This has led to the loss of their traditional connection to the sea, the very source of their identity. In turn, this threatens the survival of the Bajo as a distinct group.

People of the sea

The Bajo (sometimes written ‘Bajau’) were a nomadic people who for centuries lived on house-boats. One of only three groups of sea nomads worldwide, the Bajo have wandered between ‘moorages’ on the coasts of the southern Philippines, Malaysia and eastern Indonesia since the tenth century. Their name for themselves, Sama dilau, literally means ‘people of the sea’.

In bad weather, the Bajo would shelter in groups of 5-30 boats, near coastal villages with whom they traded fish for basics such as cassava, firewood, and fresh water. Networks of kin connected Bajo groups thousands of miles apart, allowing families to move freely in search of good fishing grounds.

The Bajo way of life was highly sustainable. Communities were small, and didn’t put much pressure on the marine environment. When a fishing ground became depleted, the community simply moved on, giving the area time to recover. Bajo understanding of the sea’s resources, and their mobility, made them very efficient users of the Asian seas. They were the primary suppliers of exotic marine products such as sea cucumbers and pearls to the sultans who ruled the region from the twelfth to the seventeenth century.

Mobility shaped the way Bajo society was organised. They didn’t have a notion of ownership of territories because everyone simply fished where they chose to. Bajo communities had no official leaders and no system of laws, because every family was independent and could move whenever they wished. Moving was also the only way the Bajo had to deal with conflict within a group.

Other ethnic groups and political elites considered the Bajo primitive, due to their lack of permanent houses, their preference for living on the sea rather than on land, and their faith in sea spirits (rather than Islam). If these negative views turned into overt antagonism, the Bajo simply left. This mobility also allowed them to shop around to get the best trade deals.

Settle down!

So what happened? The story of Sampela village, where Bajo maintain a semi-traditional lifestyle, provides some clues. This village, in the Wakatobi National Marine Park in Southeast Sulawesi, is a permanent settlement of stilt houses, roughly 500 metres off the coast. Many Bajo villages are built offshore to guarantee access to fishing grounds regardless of the tidal height.

The Bajo of Sampela settled under government pressure during the Kahar Muzakkar uprisings of the 1950s. This was ostensibly to ‘protect’ them from rebels, but village elders say that it was to control and integrate the Bajo, who were considered primitive, and suspected of piracy.

The older generation of Bajo in Sampela grew up in house-boats, and regret the loss of traditional fishing knowledge and cultural identity that has occurred since settlement. For instance, the Bajo used to hold communal fish drives in the monsoon season, called palilibu. The last palilibu held in Sampela was more than ten years ago. This process of cultural decline is accelerating as younger generations choose wage labour jobs over the traditional fishing lifestyle of their parents.

Destroying marine resources

The Bajo may have settled, but moving around is still a large part of their lives, thanks to new money and technologies. Those who remain fishers use motor boats to access remote fishing grounds daily from their home village. This allows Bajo people to spend less time and effort on travel, and also to exploit new fish species, such as tuna, turtle and shark. Even though they are settled, some Bajo go further today than ever before. Bajo from Flores frequently travel to Papua in search of lobster, and other Wakatobi Bajo make regular turtle fishing trips to Maluku. Some Bajo travel as far as Australia to fish, using GPS and speedboats to avoid being caught by the coastguard.

Bajo fishermen today make these trips for the money rather than family reasons — species such as turtle fetch a high price in the Balinese jewellery markets. Bajo families need this extra income to cover new expenses such as motorboat fuel and school fees. This new commercialism, combined with permanent settlement, may soon spell the end for the surrounding marine ecosystems, and perhaps even for the Bajo way of life.

In the past, Bajo fishermen only took enough to feed their families, and for a small amount of trade. The mobility and small size of Bajo communities kept this sustainable. But now, large settled Bajo communities fish very heavily, thanks to modern inventions such as nylon netting, bombs and cyanide fishing. All this has meant that the reefs surrounding many Bajo settlements are now completely barren of marine life.

Moving into poverty

As local resources begin to run out, Bajo people must find new ways to make ends meet. Many now migrate not in search of a good catch, but better wages, to the ports of Malaysia and the urban centres of Indonesia. Young men dream of migrating, getting wealthy, having an adventure, and earning a place in traditional Bajo songs like the legendary sailors of old. But instead, most migrants find themselves in poverty, and succumb to alcohol, violence and gambling in a new and unfriendly city. Very few send money home, and many don’t return to their village for years on end, causing disruption to families and to the community. In any one year, one in five men in Sampela are on migration, leaving wives and children to fend for themselves.

There is a widening gap between those who prefer the old days and those who want desperately to step out of poverty and marginalisation into a new modern Indonesian society. This is causing increasing conflict in Bajo communities, which is made worse by the fact that the Bajo traditionally did not have ways of dealing with conflict other than moving on.

In search of a Bajo future

The Bajo need a solution to environmental degradation and poverty in order to survive as a truly unique culture. Efforts to save Indonesia’s marine resources have already begun, but have not been very successful in Bajo areas. ‘No fishing zones’ are a completely alien idea for the Bajo, who say that the use of the sea cannot be restricted, because the sea spirits have given every human being the right to exploit the sea’s bounty however they wish. Even new conservation programs which attempt to empower communities to manage their own local environments are difficult for the Bajo to work with, because they believe that the sea is the property of everyone.

One solution would be to move the Bajo onto land, and encourage them to take up more profitable and environmentally friendly jobs. This has already happened to some Bajo communities in Indonesia, and has caused the loss of the traditions which made them a unique people. Some Bajo look forward to this change as their ticket to prosperity and mainstream Indonesian society, but unfortunately it usually doesn’t happen that way. Even in the ghettoes of Jakarta, people still discriminate against the Bajo, conpidering them primitive, pagan and ignorant, and denying them access to good jobs, education, and health care.

Elsewhere, indigenous groups campaign to safeguard their way of life and their environment, based on not just their unique cultures, but also their rights to traditional territories. This is a difficult act for the Bajo to follow, since they do not have a homeland. Also, indigenous rights movements need people to unite behind a common cause. The Bajo, on the other hand, have traditionally valued independence more than cooperation.

Without a united Bajo movement for change, the fate of this unique way of life lies in the hands of local NGOs who are working to ensure a sustainable future for the Bajo. We can only hope that they will be successful in persuading governments and environmentalists to embrace conservation and development programs which respect the unique culture of these people, and their legacy of mobility.

Joanna Swiecicka (j_swiecicka@hotmail.com) is a cultural anthropologist based at the International Centre for Responsible Tourism, UK. Chris Majors (bajo@telkom.net) is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He has lived and worked amongst the Bajo since 1996.

Inside Indonesia 82: Apr-Jun 2005

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.