Bungin Island, Sumbawa, Indonesia – Scattered across many of the islands and coastal communities in Southeast Asia, the Bajau, numbering about one million people, are the world’s largest remaining group of sea nomads. But their culture is under threat.
In the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines, where the Bajau have roamed the ocean for 1,000 years, insurrection by the Abu Sayyaf armed group has led to an increased military presence and curfews restricting movements on both sides of the border.
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On the islands of southern Thailand, where the group are known as Moken, they live in stilt shanties that cling like barnacles to coastlines that are rapidly being consumed by buildings built for tourists.
In Indonesia and peninsula Malaysia, many Bajau have given up ocean-based life by marrying people from local communities and seeking jobs in the cities.
But one Bajau community on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa has preserved its unique way of life by building their own islet out of coral, allowing it to evolve separately from the mainland.
With 3,500 residents on just 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of land, Bungin Island also stands out as the most densely populated of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.
When the first Bajau arrived in Sumbawa from the southern Philippines 200 years ago, Bungin Island was just a sandbank on the north coast. In the Bajo language, Bungin means “a mound of white sand”.
They built their spartan stilt houses on the sand, but as their numbers grew, they enlarged the island by harvesting coral to build foundations for houses on low-lying sections of the surrounding reef. With the help of relatives and friends, it typically takes a week to build a 70-square metre (172-square acre) plot and structure.
“We have a good life here and we have enough money because all the time, every day and night, we are looking for fish,” said Surat, a Bungin Island elder, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.
The Bajau are accomplished fishermen and free-divers who can remain underwater for as long as eight minutes on a single breath. Some children have their eardrums pierced to prevent them from bursting from water pressure while diving.
Studies of Bajau who start diving from young have shown their spleens, the organs which store oxygenated red blood cells, are 50 percent bigger than average.
Bungin Island has also developed a strong sense of community. When the heat of the day eases at dusk, people come out onto the tightly packed streets to shop, mingle, eat and pray in the mosque.
Indonesians are renowned for their hospitality but on Bungin Island they really roll out the red carpet, sharing drinks, meals, laughter and conversation with visitors. And apparently, there is no crime on the islet.
“We don’t have locks on our doors,” said Rizky, Surat’s neighbour. “Everyone knows each other so it’s not possible to steal anything here.”
‘The problem with corona’
The nature of the sea gypsies’ lifestyle means they have missed out on many basic services.
Bajau communities in Indonesia are lacking “in the areas of health and education … [and] many Bajau are illiterate,” found the Joshua Project, a research project focused on Indigenous cultures with Christian minorities.
In the mid-1990s, the Indonesian government embarked on several large infrastructure projects to drag Bungin Island into the 21st century.
It built a wide sand causeway linking the island to the mainland and making it easier for islanders to sell their salted fish at mainland markets.
It also built a large government school on the mainland-end of the causeway and connected the islet to the national power grid. And tackled overcrowding by shipping in thousands of tonnes of sand to reclaim an additional 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) of land from the seafloor.
The causeway also had an unintended effect – it turned Bungin Island into Sumbawa’s leading attraction for domestic tourists who would come to marvel at the paper-eating goats.
As plants cannot grow on the islet, the domesticated goats that roam the streets search instead for paper, cardboard and cloth. For many children, the highlight of visiting the islet was to feed the goats pages from their exercise books. For adults, it was long lazy lunches at Resto Apung, a floating seafood restaurant and fish farm with breathtaking coast and mountain views.
But when Indonesia temporarily banned domestic travel in April to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, tourism came to an end. With Indonesia’s coronavirus outbreak still surging, it has yet to recover.
“We had many tourists before the problem with corona,” said Surat. “But as we live so close together it is impossible to socially distance. The restaurant and our guesthouse had to close.”
The causeway has also brought more worrying problems.
Before it was built, islanders ate only seafood, some greens and rice, and used organic materials like coconut shells and palm fronds as bags.
Easy access to the mainland introduced cheap packaged foods, water bottles and plastic bags and no waste management system to deal with it.
The result is that Bungin Island has been turned into a rubbish dump; its shores are carpeted with tonnes of rotting waste – all of which ends up in the delicate marine ecosystem the Bajau depend on to survive.
When asked about the problem, islanders laugh – a typical Indonesian response to awkward questions and social situations.
But a study published by the University of Queensland in July on plastic literacy in remote Indonesian coastal communities found a majority of people in the communities did not see the plastic waste as a threat and believed its only negative effect was to “make the village look dirty”.
The study’s authors suggested a two-pronged solution: the creation of “rubbish banks” – a term used in Indonesia for a recycling facility where plastic can be sold, sorted, shredded and moved down the value chain; and plastic awareness and environmental education.
Awareness initiatives have already led to changes of some centuries-old traditions.
In the past, customary law dictated that young people who wanted to marry had to harvest coral to build a home of their own. The 21st-century residents of Bungin have different ideas.
“Now, if you get married, you stay with your parents and slowly, you save up money to buy a house on Bungin,” said Surat. “Most people do it this way because it’s easier than building with coral and doesn’t hurt the reef where the fish live so we can keep on fishing.”