′We′re no longer able to understand our world′ | Global Ideas | DW | 09.04.2013
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Global Ideas

'We're no longer able to understand our world'

In southeastern Indonesia, gods and ancestors have long determined the fate of local fishermen on the open seas. But climate change has changed all that, a village elder from the indigenous Bajau community says.

My name is Bapak Hinayah. I am a fisherman from the Bajau community and the most senior village elder on Rajuni Kecil island. Almost everyone here is a fisher or trader, we live off fishing.

Our schedule and daily catch is determined by the monsoon season and the shift between rainy and dry seasons. In the cities, Indonesians call us orang laut, or people of the sea. I am proud to be a Bajau. Our people used to live only on boats, and sail across all of Southeast Asia’s seas. That’s all over now. I miss the old times very much!

Allah and the sea god

We Bajau know a lot about the sea. We know all the maritime species, all the fish that live far out in the ocean: coral fish, shrimp, lobsters, octopus, sea turtles, sea cucumbers and mussels. We are Muslims and we believe in the Lord Almighty, but we also know that gods, spirits and demons control the sea.

Foto: Bajau fisherman Bapak Hinayah on shore. (Foto: Christian Reichel, Institut für Ethnologie – Berlin)

Bapak Hinayah wonders how long the Bajau will manage to live from fishing

The most important is dewa laut, the sea god who lives with his wife and child in the waters. He holds more powers than all other divine beings, and he determines everything that happens on the sea. When dewa laut wants to come into contact with people, he takes the form of a four-legged octopus. We fishermen have great respect for dewa laut. According to ancient tales, he has the power to take any form or size and can easily capsize any boat.

In order not to anger this powerful supernatural beast of the sea, we adhere to various codes of conduct and taboos. That is because among the variety of things, there is a cosmic order that connects all things to each other. And we believe there is a danger that this order can be destabilized by excessive or one-sided fishing.

To prevent that from happening, we employ a fishing system called silelebbas. It’s based on the lifecycles of marine species and prescribes specific times for catching each type of creature that can be sold at the market. Breaking with those rules can have serious consequences – anything from a poor catch to illness to even tsunamis and flooding, everything is possible.

The unpredictable ocean

Our islands used to be like a garden from which we could feed ourselves and our families. But today, everything is different. Coral fish are dying off, and we have to row very far out into the waters to fill our nets. Nowadays, it’s practically impossible to continue the daily fishing routine where we used small boats and circled the nearby reefs.

The weather and the seasons have changed too. Everything started to become unpredictable and extreme about 10 to 15 years ago. Earlier, the dry season lasted from July to September, the best time to fish. The monsoon winds were calm, the waves were low and we were able to travel to fishing areas that were further out, or even visit relatives on other islands located further away.

Between January and March, the rainy season brought monsoon winds that blew from north to west. The winds blew much stronger than any other season, and the waves were high. From April to June and again from October to December, the weather and waves were unpredictable but we were prepared for that.

Now, the weather is unpredictable and extreme all year round. It’s all in disarray. The monsoon starts later every year, it rains during the dry season and there are often long dry spells during the rainy season. We get heavy storms much earlier than we used to, and that means big waves – sometimes so big that we aren’t able to go out on our boats for weeks at a time.

'Our ancestors can no longer help us'

We can’t rely on the knowledge of our ancestors anymore – we are desperate. Many people here have become poor. In order to feed their families, some have been forced to move away to the far away city of Makassar where they try to earn money as day laborers. Many of them don’t manage, and they end up living on the streets.

A swarm of fish near Rajuni Kecil island. (Foto: Christian Reichel, Institut für Ethnologie – Berlin)

Rajuni Kecil island was once surrounded by waters teeming with fish. Nowadays, fishermen have to row far out to fill their nets

Those who stay here increasingly have to compete with fishers from outside, who come from other parts of Indonesia or as far away as Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore or Korea. Where they come from, coral fish have died off at an even faster rate. These people fish with reckless abandon, without considering the natural resources. And we have started to do the same just to survive.

It’s a vicious circle that gets worse every year. We are destroying our environment to survive, but we’re destroying our future livelihood at the same time. That causes more poverty and destroys the cosmic order. Even our sandro, one of the village elders who mediates between humans and the gods, doesn’t know what to do. Through sacrifice, we try to ward off the negative influences each month but the situation is worsening every year. We’re no longer able to understand our world.

Recorded by Christian Reichel

Christian Reichel is an environmental anthropologist who works at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Berlin’s Free University. The interview above is based on his conversations with several locals on Rajuni Kecil island, where he lived for several months. The island is part of the Takabonerate islands in South Sulawesi, located in the Flores Sea.