Without safeguards, conservation efforts could undermine the traditional livelihoods of seafaring indigenous peoples

Nicole Girard

The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI) is an ambitious multilateral collaboration intended to protect rich marine biodiversity and sustainable use of marine resources in the Asia Pacific Coral Triangle. 

Spanning a vast area of 5.7 million square kilometres, covering the territorial waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste, the CTI contains 76 per cent of all coral species, 3,000 different fish species and supports some 150 million people. 

The CTI claims to put livelihoods at the centre of its initiative. The CTI’s Regional Plan of Action (RPOA), which defines its principles, goals and targets, asserts that the CTI ‘should support people-centred biodiversity conservation, sustainable development and poverty reduction’, including ‘sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities’. It further affirms that the CTI ‘should be inclusive and engage multiple stakeholders’ including ‘indigenous and local communities’. 

Despite these commitments to meaningful participation by affected indigenous communities and protection for their marine resource dependent livelihoods, the implementation of the CTI has been problematic, particularly for highly marginalized mobile marine indigenous populations such as the Sama Dilaut, also known as Sama Bajau, Baja Laut or Bajau. The lack of meaningful consultation and the community’s free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in the establishment of the CTI now threatens to create further exclusion for them, increasing food insecurity and undermining livelihood opportunities. 

The Sama Dilaut 

The Sama Dilaut are one of the most widely dispersed indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia. They are a diverse seafaring people who have traditionally maintained a nomadic and seminomadic existence living and sustaining themselves in the seas of Southeast Asia, travelling through islands between the southern Philippines, the coast of Sabah in East Malaysia and Sulawesi and East Kalimantan in Indonesia. Their range reaches as far as the Arafura Sea off the coast of Papua, Indonesia, as well as north to the South China Sea. They are highly dependent on marine resources, and their cultural identity is intertwined with and derived from their maritime existence. Sedentarization programmes, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, started in the 1950s and continued throughout the century, establishing coastal communities. It is estimated that there are approximately 1.1 million Sama-Bajau speakers, with around 200,000 in eastern Indonesia, 347,000 in Malaysia’s Sabah and 564,000 in the Philippines. Estimates of Sama Dilaut who continue to live a nomadic life on houseboats, however, number only around 5,000 across Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, many of whom are stateless, maintaining a liminal existence, with little to no access to education, health care or other state protection. While Sama Dilaut throughout the region are generally socially, economically and politically marginalized and highly marine resource dependent, those without citizenship are even more vulnerable to exclusion and suffer greater impacts from policies that can limit access to their means of subsistence. 

Traditional livelihood strategies 

One of the defining livelihood strategies of Sama Dilaut has been mobility, plying the seas to collect resources for food, housing and fuel. They have an intimate knowledge of their maritime environment, the seasons and its resources, collecting an estimated 300 different marine species for food, medicine or trading purposes. Their collection methods are classified into four main types: shore gleaning and collecting, inshore coastal fishing, extended sea or reef fishing, and long-distance nomadic fishing. 

While mobility has been recognized as a conservation and sustainability strategy of nomadic indigenous peoples, for example in the 2002 Dana Declaration on mobile peoples and conservation, the Sama Dilaut’s mobility has been wrongly characterized as encouraging destructive fishing practices such as cyanide and blast fishing, because they can simply ‘move on’ rather than live with the impacts themselves. Such stereotypes were present, for instance, at the launch of the CTI’s RPOA, when World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Australia specifically blamed ‘tribal groups such as the Bajo, Bugis and Maduranese’ in its report, Coral Triangle and Climate Change: Ecosystem, People and Societies at Risk, for the ‘take all practices of these wandering fishermen [who] leave the locations that they exploit highly degraded with very few fish stock left’, unlike ‘other traditional stationary communities that live in relative harmony with local coastal resources’. These negative perspectives of Sama Dilaut held by conservationists are a symptom of the lack of engagement with these communities on marine planning and ignorance of their extensive traditional environmental knowledge. In reality, mobility has traditionally been used by Sama Dilaut to avoid over-use of resources. 

I never agreed with the park establishment. But we are Bajau Laut. We have no rights to say no because we have not acquired a legal document.

Bajau Laut community member

Marine Protected Areas 

The CTI aims to protect marine biodiversity through the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that have been designated rich in biological diversity while being under threat. Various zones are established to delineate resource-use areas, for example, no-take zones (NTZs) or limited-take zones. These national MPAs are intended to form a regionwide Coral Triangle MPA System (CTMPAS) network. By 2014, more than 1,900 MPAs had been established in the CTI, totalling more than 200,000 square kilometres. 

MPA zoning is delineated using biological criteria, establishing areas of high biodiversity, often using spatial planning software such as Marxan, and in some cases amended after consultations with local stakeholders. Yet there is little evidence that meaningful consultation with indigenous Sama Dilaut, respecting their right to FPIC, has taken place in many of the CTI’s MPAs, despite their dependence on and knowledge of the resources within them. 

While vast swathes of marine areas are being designated as protected, there is of course the issue of enforcement. Unless the MPA is an area attracting sustained international attention via either its ecotourism or scientific value, enforcement of the NTZs has been difficult, as a result of underfunding, ongoing destructive development projects and weak governance generally. 

Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Malaysia 

Off the eastern coast of Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia, Tun Sakaran Marine Park covers an area of 350 square kilometres. Gazetted in 2004, the park has a variety of no-take and limited-use zones, enforced by the Sabah Parks Authority. Back in 2006, the park’s resident population was estimated at around 2,500 people, comprised of 14 per cent Bajau Tempatan (sedentarized ethnic Bajau), 46 per cent Suluk (originating from the Sulu Archipelago, where they are known as Tausug) and 40 per cent Sama Dilaut. Only 14 percent of park residents held Malaysian citizenship; 40 per cent had some form of documentation including refugee status; while 40 per cent had no documents at all. 

All reefs that extend from the islands and sand cays are considered ‘conservation’ or ‘preservation’ (fish spawning zones) areas, prohibiting Sama Dilaut from legally undertaking any resource extraction, and excluding them from their main sources of food and livelihood. According to a study conducted among park residents in 2015, 90 per cent of Sama Dilaut respondents indicated fishing as their main source of livelihood, notwithstanding the park’s prohibition on fishing. This fishing is largely undertaken in areas further out, on the edges of the park, in pelagic zones and beyond. The ‘general use’ areas of the park are primarily used by Suluk and Bajau Tempatan for seaweed gardens. Licences to grow seaweed are provided exclusively to Malaysian citizens and fishing in these areas is prohibited to prevent possible contamination. 

The impact of NTZs has disproportionately affected Sama Dilaut women, whose livelihood contribution was primarily gleaning and collecting from coastal areas, activities which are also now prohibited. Some efforts have been made by NGOs to redirect them to other livelihood opportunities, such as basket weaving, but their access to markets is generally limited. Without land rights and as stateless persons, they cannot work in or grow food on Malaysian land either. This situation leaves them precariously without cash for staple items like cassava flour and, coupled with marine resource collection restrictions, poses threats to food security for themselves and their families. 

Meaningful consultation including FPIC with the Sama Dilaut communities and other communities affected by the park was not undertaken. In the aforementioned study from 2015, out of 79 respondents from across all three communities, 49 per cent said they were never invited to participate in community consultation sessions. Sama Dilaut are particularly marginalized: without citizenship and in a disadvantaged political and socio-economic position, they hesitate to assert their perspectives. As one respondent in the study explained: ‘I never agreed with the park establishment. But we are Bajau Laut. We have no rights to say no because we have not acquired a legal document. We are afraid of being displaced. At the end of the day, we do not care any more about the park.’ 

The threat of nickel mining to Bajau livelihoods in Indonesia 

Indonesia has the largest coral reef area out of the six CTI countries, totalling 18 per cent of the world’s coral reefs, and these reefs are among the world’s most biologically diverse. MPAs in Indonesia total 178,851 square kilometres, comprised of 206 MPAs, equalling around 7.12 per cent of Indonesian waters. 

The level of protection afforded to MPAs varies, however, as the Indonesian government continues to prioritize nickel mining over ocean and community health in areas covered by the CTI. Nickel mining poses serious threats to coral reefs, putting the livelihoods of local communities, including Sama Bajau, at risk. Mud sediment laden with heavy metals like arsenic washes into coastal seas; in some cases, trailings are disposed of directly into the ocean. As a result, coral reef species die off or become contaminated. 

Despite these risks, the Indonesian government continues to issue nickel mining concessions as demand for nickel rises due to its use in the batteries of electric vehicles. Indonesia holds the world’s largest nickel deposits, 50 per cent of which are found in Sulawesi, which is also home to some of the most valued coral reefs in the world. In Southeast Sulawesi alone, 213 mining concessions have been issued, with many others suspected to be functioning with fake authorization permits. These coastal and marine areas are also the traditional fishing grounds of Sama Bajau communities. 

‘The establishment of Marine Protected Areas is only for the “climate diplomacy” of the Indonesian government, which it uses to get funding from many institutions including foreign governments’, explains Parid Ridwanuddin, manager of Sea and Coastal Campaigns at Walhi, an Indonesian environmental rights NGO. ‘The government authorizes the location of these conservation areas without public consultation, in a topdown pattern, for its own benefit, giving no recognition to vulnerable Bajau. It is for this reason we say the CTI has failed. Conservation areas are not really conservation areas, but mining areas.’ 

Conservation and indigenous marine peoples’ livelihoods 

Tun Sakaran Marine Park is only one example of an MPA in the CTI that has disproportionately impacted the livelihoods of Sama Dilaut. Despite making a perfunctory nod towards indigenous peoples’ rights, the CTI has largely proceeded without adequate consideration of the peoples whose lives and cultures depend on access to the sea and its resources. 

At its establishment, the CTI committed itself to conserving ‘at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas’ by 2020, following the targets set out in the Aichi Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. These targets are set to become even more ambitious under the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which is calling for 30 per cent of the world’s land and water to be under formal protection by 2030. 

Unfortunately, these blanket spatial conservation strategies are often undertaken without respect for the rights of the indigenous peoples who are connected to these lands, waters and natural resources. These targets can pose particular problems for nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, conflicting with their livelihood strategies and cultural practices. 

The large-scale regional coordination represented by the CTI should be an opportunity for states to work together to address specific threats to the rights of the Sama Dilaut, particularly their right to a nationality. If the CTI is to realize its goal to include indigenous communities, more effort will need to be made by CTI states and their international governmental and NGO donors to do so.

Photo: A member of the Bajau Laut community living in Denawan Island, Sabah, Malaysia prepares dishes for her husband and three children. Credit: Huiyee Chiew 

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