- A growing population, destruction of coral reefs, and the loss of traditional fishing methods all threaten the way of life of traditional communities in Indonesia whose livelihoods have for generations depended on the sea.
- Among them are the seafaring Bajo people, nomads of the waters between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, who say their resources “are declining day by day.”
- In the Sangihe Islands in the archipelago’s northeast, modern nets and outboard motors have replaced the bamboo gear and sampan boats used by local fishing communities.
For decades, the nomadic Bajo people have crisscrossed the seas of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. But due to pollution, climate change, overfishing and other harmful practices, their way of life is under threat.
“The Bajo population increases, but resources are declining day by day,” Andar Halim, a member of a Bajo community in Indonesia’s Wakatobi island chain, off the province of Southeast Sulawesi, says in a recent documentary about the Bajo, titled The Call from the Sea.
“Without good regulations for the ocean, I am certain that in the future, my son, Halim, will not be a fisherman like his grandfather.”
The 15-minute documentary, by U.S. filmmaker Taylor McNulty, shows how Andar’s community, which previously lived in traditional leppa boats in which they would travel between fishing areas, has shifted to floating houses with walls of bamboo and rattan resting on stilts driven into the seabed.
The Bajo are among the many sea-based communities whose traditional way of life is under threat from pressures on the ocean and its resources. A 2018 study by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) found that more than a third of 1,067 inspected coral reef sites were damaged. Only 70 were rated as “very good.”
Human activities such as blast fishing that leads to pollution and the vandalizing and removal of reefs are factors.
“Today many sea-based traditions, particularly on the ways to catch fish and utilize seaborne resources, are starting to be eroded by the presence of machines and technology,” researcher Alex John Ulaen, a retired lecturer at Sam Ratulangi University in Manado, said in a webinar in April.
In Indonesia’s Sangihe Islands, Ulaen said, local fishers are switching from traditional seke fishing equipment to net fishing gear on outrigger sampans.
Outrigger sampans of the pump boat type with Philippine-made engines dominate the fishing scene in the Sangihe Islands, according to a 2014 book on the demise of traditional fishing practices in North Sulawesi province co-authored by Ulaen.
The pandihe is the main seke tool, assembled from fine bamboo with rattan. It can be 1 meter wide and 150 meters long. When unrolled, it is placed in the water to entrap and shepherd fish to shore. A disadvantage is that it can weigh more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds) in the water. Another is that it can tear if it snags on a jagged coral reef.
Ulaen, 72, suggested the fish-catching tradition of the Sangihe islanders is under threat of extinction, particularly on the island of Makalehi, which he called in his book “the last bastion of the maneke,” the community’s fishing tradition.
“The last set of traditional fishing gear got mashed in a major storm in 2010,” Ulaen told Mongabay. “It was never manufactured again. The difficulty was in procuring fine bamboo as the basic raw material. People had to go to the Minahasa mainland [in North Sulawesi] for it.”
Mohammad Ismail, an official with the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries who works with traditional communities, said the ministry was taking measures to protect 32 of these communities in coastal areas and small islands.
Whatever threat to their livelihood sea-based communities face, the final response lies with members of the community itself.
In the case of Andar Halim of the Bajo community in Wakatobi, where he has lived in a coastal neighborhood since 2006, his answer is in adaptation.
“We can adapt. We can overcome it if it comes to that,” he said. “We’ve done for hundreds of years.”
Banner image: Bajo women canoeing from the village to a tourist beach. Image by Collin Key via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).