The Bajo’s Vanishing Language of Nature

The reputation of the Bajo tribesmen as masters of the sea may soon vanish. Global change has made the weather increasingly unpredictable. Their special gift in reading nature’s signs may no longer be relevant, given the sorry state of our environment, which has ruined the language of seasons, the direction of stars and the course of the winds. Yet, when they go off to sea in search of their livelihood, these are the only compass they can rely on. And the once-rich harvest of the oceans slowly have declined, pushing the Bajo more inland, to live in settlements along coastal areas. How many more generations of the Bajo can sustain their mastery of such marine knowledge? A special report from South Sulawesi in this week’s Tempo English Edition.

Kampung Bajoe, kabupaten Bone, Sulawesi Selatan. (By-Irmawati)

IN Mekar village, Soropiah district, Konawe regency, Southeast Sulawesi, lives Haji Razak, renowned in the area as a “reader of nature signs.” He can predict when it will be bright. He know wind and wave conditions like back of his hand.

Old man Razak is just one example of  a member of the Bajo tribe known to be extremely intimate with the environment and fluent in the language of nature. This expertise is their main strength  when  sailing to sea. Their outlook on life is that the to sea is food, medicine, home, the way and a place ti live.

But lately, Razak confesses that he is confused by and finds it difficult to predict the weather, making it difficult for us to sail to sea,” said Maha, 58, a fisherman from Mekar, when Tempo met him, 2 October. Maha is one of the many fisherman who are highly dependent on Razak’s knowlodge. Maha even chooses not to go to sea if there is no “weather news” from Haji Razak. “rather than suffer losses,” he said.

According to Maha, going to sea without any guidance has a huge impact on their catch. “Often we leave when the weather is bright, but suddenly it rains and we return without any catch. As you can imagine, we have to pay for the fuel to sail,” he explained.

Maha is not alone. Rudding, 40, a fisherman from Saponda Laut village, Soropiah district, claims that his catch has continued to decline recently because the weather is so unpredictable. To meet his daily needs, including his children’s school fees, Rudding’s wife Gengge’ has no choice hut to sell precious items such as earrings.

Kampung Bajoe, kabupaten Bone, Sulawesi Selatan. (By-Irmawati)

Andi Anwar, 47, echoes that the fisherman’s catsh continues to decline. One of the reasons is the uncertain weather conditions. Sometimes it’s bright; sometimes it rains cats and dogs accompanied by strong winds. When the weather is like that, the fishermen usually choose not to go to sea. Even if they do go, they dare not sail far because their equipment is very simple.

“The Bajo tribe is a community that’s very slow to change,” said Munsi Lampe, a researcher in the field of maritime and Head of Anthropology, School of Social and Political Sciences at Hasanuddin University. It’s highly likely that the climate change will threaten the Bajo community which is hugely dependent on the sea.

The majority of the Bajo fishermen still use a simple boat called lepa-lepa. They use a small trawl, arrows, spears, and ladung (a type of a small fishing rod). Consequently, it takes Bajo fishermen more time to size their catch.

Anwar adds that the uncertain weather conditions disturb the process from going to sea to drying the fish. Usually, after two days beneath the sun, the fish will be dry; today it takes one week. “It’s not rare for the fish to rot because of the rain, because we can’t go back and forth to save them from the rain,” said Anwar. The fish are deliberately dried under the sun to give added value when sold.

Kampung Bajoe, Desa Leppe, Kecamatan Soropiah, Kabupaten Konawe, Sulawesi Tenggara. (By-Irmawati)

Sujarwo, head of the Sub-Office on Services, Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, Region IV Makassar, says that this year the weather conditions in the Sulawesi and Maluku regions are tremendously varied. La Nina causing temperature condensation influences such conditions; consequently, there is more water from the ocean.

In the meantime, this year’s rainfall, according to Sujarwo, tends to be higher than normal conditions followed by season shifts. The beginning of the rainy season  is usually December; to day it started in October already. Actually,according to President of the Bajo Family Association, Abdul Manan, the Bajo are still enormously dependent on seasons when sailing.

at ca”� i�o�Єso-bidi-font-style:normal’>lepa-lepa. They use a small trawl, arrows, spears, and ladung(a type of a small fishing rod). Consequently, it takes Bajo fishermen more time to size their catch.

Anwar adds that the uncertain weather conditions disturb the process from going to sea to drying the fish. Usually, after two days beneath the sun, the fish will be dry; today it takes one week. “It’s not rare for the fish to rot because of the rain, because we can’t go back and forth to save them from the rain,” said Anwar. The fish are deliberately dried under the sun to give added value when sold.

Until the end of the 21st century, temperatures in Indonesia are estimated to increase above an average of 1 degree Celsius per 100 years due to climate change. Coral reef researcher from Hasanuddin University, Syafyudin Yusuf says that indications of seawater temperature increase have been visible since last year. This year, there has been an increase of 3-4 degrees Celsius, from a normal average temperature of 29.09 degrees Celsius. “These past two years it’s not clear when is the dry season and when is the rainy season. But the seawater is warm,” he said.

The increase in the seawater surface temperature is driving fish living in shallow waters to go deeper. This impacts the Bajo’s source of living because they usually fish in shallow waters because their equipment is simple. According to Syafyudin, after six years of researching  in Bajo village in Takabonerate, Selayar regency, South Sulawesi, the Bajo have constraints in seeking alternatives ti their source of living going to sea.

Syafyudin adds that the increase in the seawater temperature is causing a bleaching process, where the soft tissues of coral are loosened leaving only the shells. The diminishing coral component automatically reduces the number of sea biota living around the coral  reefs. This is the favorite place for the Bajos to look for fish and other sea biota.

Kampung Bajoe, Pulau Saponda, Kecamatan Soropiah, Kabupaten Konawe, Sulawesi Tenggara. (By-Irmawati)

Climate change is also causing the seawater level to rise. According to Syafyudin, during tides the water is higser than usual. When the waves sweep sand on to the island it causes  abrasions. He cites as an example that this year water entered the space under the floor of the houses on stils in Barrang Lompo Island, Makassar and Badi Islans in the Pangkajene Islands (Pangkep) regency. That had never happened before. Furthermore, a row of houses on Badi Island, around 15 houses, formerly on sand, have now been transformed into sea.

Some islands in Kendari are also becoming smaller; for example, Bokori Island. Consequently, the villagers on the island migrated ti the coast of Sulawesi in the 1980s because the island could no longer accommodate the Bajo villagers.

The contition is worsened by the Bajo’s way of catching fish that is no longer environment-friendly. Some have adopted ways that ruin seabiota. They learn the ways from  fishermen from South Sulawesi know as kapal putih. In the past, they used environmentfriendly catching equipment, but these days they use bombs to get bigger fish. Bajo fishermen with large capital mostly adopt this method.

The Bajo’s original culture is indeed environment-friendly. They forbid going to sea at certain times despite the bright weather, namely on Fridays. They even regulate where to throw garbage. If converted into a percentage, the number of Bajo fishermen still using the traditional ways of catching reaches 25 percent. (By Irmawati, Outreach, Tempo English Edition, October 27- November 2, 2010)

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Boat People No Longer

Kampung Bajoe, Desa Leppe, Kecamatan Soropiah, Kabupaten Konawe, Sulawesi Tenggara. (By-Irmawati)

THE Bajo tribe are known as boat people because their livelihood depends on the boats—although it’s estimated that their numbers continue to live on the beach, building homes on stilts.

Professor of Anthropology at Haluleo University and a researcher of the Bajo tribe, Professor Nasruddin Suyuti, says that it’s hard today to find Bajo still living on bido, a home-on-boat. A bido is like a sampan but binger and without an engine. When going far, they use sails; when big waves arrive, they evade them. On the boat they live, have children and breed livestock such as chickens. Nasruddin saw this in the 1980s on Labengki Island, Lasolo district, North Konawe regenct, Southeast Sulawesi.

The Bajo who still survive at sea can be found in Tapitapi village, Muna regency, Southeast Sulawesi. They truly live on and off the sea. Around 80 percent of their places of living including supporting infrastructure such as schools and village offices are also at sea. So, there are no islands; they collect reef stones in shallow seas making them look like islands.

A similar sight can be found in Bontu-bontu village, Muna regency, and Mantigola village in Wakatobi regency, Bungi village, buton regency. Other Bajo have chosen to live on islands or moor at the coast. Several demands, such as needs for clean water and access to health and education, have forced the Bajo to live at the coast.

“Many things have changed. Only their livelihood as fishermen and using  the potential of the sea resources that haven’t changed. They start to live on land. They’re at sea only when they are fishing,” Nasruddin explains.

There is a principle that the Bajos can’t be forced to live on land. Based on this reason, they choose to live by the sea so that they can continue to hear the sounds of the waves. Some of their stilts are still placed at sea. This is the sight in the Soropiah region, at the coast of Sulawesi.

Still, several houses are beginning to be built  semi—permanently using bricks. The Bajo in Bajoe village, Bone, South Sulawesi, is even more advanced. There are asphalted roads in the village—and some of the houses are already very beautiful. (By Irmawati, Outreach, Tempo English Edition, October 27- November 2, 2010)

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Faint Ripples

Kampung Bajoe, Saponda Laut, Kecamatan Soropiah, Kabupaten Konawe, Sulawesi Tenggara. (By-Irmawati)

NO one knows for sure where the Bajo tribe came from. There are a number of different stories retists are having difficulties getting accurate data on the ancestors of Bajo tribesmen. Some people say they are  the last remaining descendants of the seafaring tribe, ancestors of Nusantara people known for their exceptional maritime skills, who crossed the sea from mainland Asia around 2500-1500 BC.

In the Malay tongue, Bajo means “to catch fish.” President of the Indonesian Bajo Family Brotherhood Association, Abdul Manan said that the Bajo might have originated from Johor, Malaysia, since the word Bajo was adoptpet from the Malay language. Bajo people in Malaysia, however, say that their ancestors came from the Philippines, while the Philippine Bajo state that Indonesia is their place of origin. “It is like the chicken and egg riddle, which one comes first?” said Abdul.

An anthropologist from the Hasanuddin University, Munsi Lampe says that the Bajo tribe is the remnants of the Polynesian Malay Race. Around 3,000 years ago, they had already developed the capability of moving things over  long distances. The nomadic Bajo are also known for their highly mobile culture, roaming across the sea every now and then. Another distinctive feature which remains until now is that they do not target any specific sea creature in their fishing. “They catch practically everything,” says Munsi.

The Bajo tribe is known as the marker of the World Reef Triangle, consisting of six countries : Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands, and Papu New Guinea. Bajo people live in these territories. In Indonesia, says Abdul, their total number reaches as high as 15 million spread throughout the country from Sabang to Merauke.

The largest Bajo population can be found in Southeast Sulawesi. Central Sulawesi and South Sulawesi each sit in the third rank. Inscriptions on palmyra leaves indicate that, in South Sulawesi, the Bajo people had spread to four main territories: Bajoe in Bone, and three others : Appatana, Jampes, and Kayuadi, in Selayar.

North Sulawesi, Gorontalo, Sumatra (Riau Islands and South Sumatra), East Java (Karibun Islands, Karaeng Island and Sepekan Island), Bali, the coasts of West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara (Labuang Bajo, Alor Island), Kalimantan (borders between Malaysia and the Philippines), Kinabalu, and some parts or the East Kalimantan coasts (Pontianak), North Maluku (Halmahera), Maluku, and Papua (Raja Ampat).

The Bajo are recognized as genuine seamen. They omce explored the seas across the entire archipelago, although now they are only known in the eastern part of Indonesia. (By Irmawati, Outreach, Tempo English Edition, October 27- November 2, 2010)

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Isolated on the Coast

Triumphant at sea, the Bajo are still backward in many respects. Education and health problems often beset them.

Kampung Bajoe, Desa Mekar, Kecamatan Soropiah, Kabupaten Konawe, Sulawesi Tenggara. (By-Irmawati)

RAMADAN, 3, looks pale. With his dark skin becoming bluish and eyes yellowed, there is no smile on his face. Unlike his peers who gaily play on the white beach by the coast of Saponda Laut Island. This child, the son of Aco and Tina, has been suffering from constipation for the past three weeks. “He’s always complaining of pain. Even when he is able to relieve himself, his stool is stained with blood,” said Tina, his mother.

Their limites knowledge and little access to health facilities cause them ti do nothing when a member of their family falls ill. A month ago, the health officials of the Soropiah Public Health Center (Puskesmas) told Tina to immediately take this eldest child of three siblings to the hospital as he was in critical condition. Unfortunately she ignored the warning, arguing that she had no money and did not know the access to the hospital.

Aksi, head of the Soropiah Puskesmas, explaind that people’s general knowledge and awareness of health is still low. For instance, they would consume water before boiling it first. Also, the way they prepare their meals is not hygienic either, even though in terms of raw materials their food is very wholesome because it is not contaminated with chemical substances.

Kampung Bajoe, Pulau Saponda, Kecamatan Soropiah, Kabupaten Konawe, Sulawesi Tenggara. (By-Irmawati)

In short, the Bajo community is still very vulnerable to poverty. Tempo’s survey of Saponda Laut indicates that the birth rates are quite high but infant mortality rates are high as well. For example, the Rudding and Gengge married couple have had 10 children but only five survived.

Aksi said further that respiratory infection is also a health threat to the Bajo community. The changing weather cycle plus heat remain a threat as well.

Head of the Indonesian Bajo Family Brotherhood Association, Abdul Manan, said that similar problems threaten almost the entire Bajo tribespeople. Clean water remains a big problem, since they would still have difficulties accessing fresh water. On a number of islands at Wakatobi, they usually find fresh water by digging a well, but today it is very hard to find fresh water in the well. At Kolaka, the Bajo would usually find clean water among rocks. But now it is becoming increasingly rare.

On the Island of Saponda, the people bring in water from Mekar, a Bajo village on the coast of Sulawesi. A jerry can of fresh water with a 20-liter capacity costs Rp 10,000. However, the islanders’ hardship will probably come to an end if the water-filtering system, anaid which has been installed, will soon go into operation.

From an educational point of view, they are still lagging behind. Prof. Nasruddin Suyuti, a researcher of the Bajo tribe, attributes their  isolated geographical conditions which do not contribute a great deal to their progress. In  addition, they maintain the habit of following their fathers to take to the sea since childhood. As for health, they still believe in their local medicine man rather than on paramedics.

Educational expenses are also a problem to the Bajo children, not to mention the irresponsible misbehavior of some teachers. For instance, at Saponda’s junior high school (SMP), most pupils play since their teachers seldom come. The situation is even worse on the Island of Rondona, Wakatobi regency. According to Abdul, there is a teacher who comes only once to teach during a six-month period.

Fortunately, said Abdul, the current situation has greatly improved. School attendance figures among children have also increased. Nowadays there are two master’s holders, including himself, and there are about 90 university graduates. To help the needy, through the Bajo Family Brotherhood Association, this year 85 people were awarded scholarships.

According to Bajo president, Abdul, education will improve the lot of the Bajo people. Maritime affairs researcher Munsi Lampe suggests that the curriculum for the Bajo should be different from the  usual one.  In view of their huge potential in the seas should be broandened. Perhaps then there will someday be Bajo university graduates who are able to design better fishery technology which remains eco-friendly.(By Irmawati, Outreach, Tempo English Edition, October 27- November 2, 2010)

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