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Batau

The Last True Marine Nomads: The Bajau Latau ‘Gypsies’

I came across a Bajau family this month in Mataking Island, a 40 acre-private-diving resort located in the Celebes Sea in Borneo. It took about an hour to walk around the island and one morning, right after sunrise, I saw two fishermen cooking breakfast in a blackened can in an open fire on the beach.

One of the men called his children who were playing in their boat. The boat looked cramped with the utensils of everyday life and I realized, it was their home. I asked before taking photographs and they seemed at ease with it. As an artist I felt inspired. I had to tell their story. Their beautiful faces captivated me profoundly, so I started talking to the locals and I did my own research.


My Walk along the beach one morning. (Photo by Gaby Berglund Cardenas)

The Bajau Laut are the second largest indigenous group of Sabah, and some of the last true marine nomads on earth.  They have developed superb eyesight under water and are able to plunge to depths of 30 metres or more  by deliberately rupturing their eardrums at an early age.

Diving accidents are common, since they breathe air pumped down to them through a hose. They have been free-diving and hunting the seas for centuries in the area called the Coral Triangle. Traditionally, they fish with nets and lines, as well as handmade spear guns.

The immense beauty of the Coral Triangle is 1.6 billion acres bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. The area is home to 3,000 species of fish and 75 per cent of all known coral species in the world. While more than 2,000 languages are spoken between the communities living in the area, the Bajau are unified by their vital connection to the sea and its offerings. Their predominant religion is a combination of animism and Islam.


Semporna water shacks (Photo by Gaby Berglund Cardenas)

I found out that the Bajau family I met are the only ‘’gypsies’’ allowed to live in Mataking’s shore.  They sell their catch in the island of Semporna, a 45-minute boat ride from Mataking. Having spent a night in Semporna before arriving in Mataking, I remember the feeling of fascination and melancholy while photographing from my hotel room Semporna’s hundreds of colorful stilt homes.

In recent decades, the majority of the community has been forced into settlements built on stilts near their fishing grounds. The local government has been trying to settle nomads to make everyone accountable as part of campaign to cut piracy.

As a ‘’stateless people,’’ they do not have the right to education or health services. The wildlife of the area and these communities are at risk, as large fishing companies and exporters look to make more profits at the expense of the area’s delicate ecosystem – thus directly affecting the Bajau.


Bajau Fisherman (Photo by  Rejimus Mongolius)

In recent years, to make higher profits and to net larger catches, some fishermen use highly destructive methods such as cyanide and home-made explosives, sometimes losing limbs – not to mention the irreversible damage done to the environment.

I want people to know about the beauty and richness of the Coral Triangle, but it’s also important to raise awareness about the dangers of this type of fishing, as well as of the dignified existence of the Bajau people.

As for the sustenance fishing of the Bajau, they are happy to look for alternative ways of fishing that are not detrimental to the environment. They realize their children won’t be able to survive if they continue to do this.

At the same time, the government must come to grips with the fact that children without a right to education don’t have a future, and that is something that all children deserve regardless of where they come from or what race of people they are.


If you would like to donate to education and housing for Borneo Bajau children you can contact the Borneo Child Aid Society.

To read more about the Bajau go here.

Lead photo by Azrol Azmi

You can read an interview with Gaby here, talking about her life in Busan as an artist.

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