The Badjaos: navigating on uncertain waters

By Jae Joseph Russell B. Rodriguez

In the mid-1960s, an American anthropologist named Harry Nimmo, lived among the Sama Dilaut or Badjaos of Tawi-Tawi. Then unislamized, they were still boat-dwellers and thrived on various methods of fishing. Nimmo studied the underlying social factors that led to their gradual shift to dwelling in houses on stilts. In his ethnographic book, he lamented on the loss of the boat-dwelling culture, the loss of one unique worldview, and ultimately a loss for humankind. Today the Badjaos have embraced Islam and the boat-dwelling culture is long gone in Tawi-Tawi. And as with any culture, change is still happening.

The Badjaos are an indigenous people (IP) which together with other ethnolinguistic groups constitute about 15% of the Philippine population. They have resisted centuries of colonial power, and thus have preserved their original way of life, their social structures, beliefs, livelihood, and art forms. Colonial regimes have left, but within the modern and independent Philippine state they are facing new threats to their existence. The “Indigenous Peoples Rights Act” (IPRA) since October 29, 1997 has mandated the recognition and protection of the rights of IPs, yet stories of displacement, violence, exclusion to political decisions, loss of ancestral domains, environmental destruction, and lack of access to basic social services continue to reverberate. 

Displaced, illiterate and reduced to begging 
For centuries in the Sulu archipelago, the Badjaos lived along the margins of society, often considered as inferior to land people. As with other nomadic cultures, they had no permanent settlement and would rather leave with their boats rather than fight when driven away by land dwellers. Today, in search for better sources of livelihood and driven from wartorn regions of Mindanao, they have scattered all over the archipelago and are commonly sighted even in Manila. Countless Badjao families continue to live impoverished lives in urban streets as they also gradually lose their culture and identity, often regarded
as illiterate and beggars by their Filipino brothers.

Romanticized but seldom understood
The IPs are often romanticized as some sacred people of the past. Yet their situations simply beg of recognition that they are our fellow citizens— our fellow humans, only with very specific needs given their attachment to their old ways of living. Often, they are only noticed in news of tragedies and poverty, if not in the popularization of mainstream media of Carrot man and Badjao girl. But few understand their very specific needs. In 2013, the Zamboanga siege displaced hundreds of Badjao along the coastlines. They were almost relocated by the local government to live on the mountains. One with a true understanding of their way of life would know a life away from the sea is added suffering to them.

Stewards of the sea
Given the pace of modern development, are these cultures obsolete? Among the problems of the new millennium is environmental destruction. The IPs culture may offer alternative solutions from their rich repository of knowledge about nature. Tribal communities persisted for thousands of years in varied niches in our archipelago. The Badjaos are no exceptions as they as they are masters of the sea and calls hundreds of fish and other marine species in their vernacular. They have mastered the shifting of tides and are aware of its blessings and dangers. A glimmer of hope, recently Badjao men and women were appointed by the current administration as bantay-dagat. As traditional seafarers, they are in the best position to be stewards of our seas, to guard against illegal fishing activities and maintain cleanliness.

In search of roots and identity
Harry Nimmo mused that someday a younger anthropologist will venture to Tawi-Tawi to study the already different but still distinctly Sama Dilaut people. In December of last year, I first stepped on Tawi-Tawi to what seemed like a nostalgic return to a place I’ve never been except in Nimmo’s books. In the next year, I will embark on a project to trace their origins by looking at their DNA, The DNA, a thread which connects us all, will hopefully contribute to the narrative of their identity and origin, which is very well our own story too.#

Mr. Jae Joseph Russell Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Genetics and Evolution at the Institute of Biological Sciences, UP Los Baños. He completed his Master of Science degree in Genetics in the same university while his research was conducted at the DNA Analysis Laboratory, Natural Sciences Research Institute - University of the Philippine Diliman. [Google Scholar Citations]