Explore our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago with Jesse Lewis, Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, as he leads a study abroad trip across Indonesia and blogs about the journey in this eight part series.
[crb_slide image=”https://www.rainforesttrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/fisherman1.png” credits=”Bajau Spear Fisherman. Photo by Jesse Lewis” title=”” text=””]
My students and I struggle to keep up with our guides, Laoda and his father Tadi, as they plunge down the steep edges of Wakatobi’s coral reefs in pursuit of fish. Between navigating the current, avoiding sea snakes and figuring out the home-made spear guns, it is not easy for us. Meanwhile, Laoda and Tadi resurface again and again with snaggle-toothed grins and fish in hand.
Laoda and his family are Bajau, an ethnic group that has for centuries lived nomadically on the sea, plying the waters of the Coral Triangle. Traditional hunter gatherers, the Bajau fish with net, line and spear while diving to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers.
In the last few decades many Bajau have been forced to settle on land by the Indonesian government, though a few still call the ocean home. Disillusioned by government promises and life on land, some Bajau have returned to the old nomadic ways. In places like Sampela, the Bajau village we are staying in Sulawesi’s Wakatobi islands, they have built stilt villages up to a kilometer out to sea and live a subsistence based lifestyle almost wholly dependent on the ocean.
Immersed in this aquatic lifestyle, the Bajau have an encyclopedic understanding of their marine ecosystem and the animals that live in it. They deftly hunt and forage wild foods, navigate by currents, tides and stars, and use nature for medicine and material.
[crb_slide image=”https://www.rainforesttrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/fish1.png” credits=”Coral Reef Fish. Photo by Jesse Lewis” title=”” text=””]
Their expert traditional knowledge is intuited from close contact and experience. It is also a way of life, interwoven in their spiritual health, culture and beliefs.
Traditional Bajau cosmology – a combination of animism and Islam – reveals this complex relationship with the ocean, which for them is a multifaceted and living entity. There are spirits in currents and tides, in coral reefs and mangroves that must be respected and appeased.
Traditional and subsistence based ways, like the Bajau’s, have helped sustain a healthy natural world for centuries.
This is especially apparent in rainforests. Indigenous peoples in Amazonia are renowned for their extensive knowledge of their rainforest environments. Like the Bajau, many indigenous peoples in the Amazon maintain a subsistence lifestyle that causes little impact on the lands they inhabit. The ecological knowledge that fosters this lifestyle is needed more than ever to protect the planet’s biodiversity as human populations grow and global demand for resources increase.
[crb_slide image=”https://www.rainforesttrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/family1.png” credits=”Sampela Homestay. Photo by Jesse Lewis” title=”” text=””]
As my students and I spoke with Bajau fishermen some interesting patterns emerged. No matter their method of fishing, all cited their love of the ocean as a major motivator for what they do. In fact, the idea of an ocean without fish, without reefs was almost incomprehensible to many of them.
Yet, coral reef ecosystems face a gauntlet of challenges in the 21st century. Overfishing, coastal development, siltation and climate change seriously test the future of Wakatobi’s reefs. The Bajau depend so thoroughly on these beleaguered ecosystems that climate change and shifting sea chemistry could eventually make it difficult for them to even find enough food to continue their traditional subsistence-based lifestyles.
Wrapping up our discussion, I queried the fisherman on the strangest thing they had ever seen on the sea. I was surprised by their answer, “We are Bajau. There is nothing strange to us. We know everything in the sea.”
Despite the Bajau’s deep traditional knowledge of their ocean homes, will it be enough to save them?
In my next post, join me as our class continues to explore Indonesia learning about the archipelago’s unique wildlife, and the illegal trade putting it in jeopardy.
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