Written by Nereus Research Associate Lydia Teh,

Under the midday sun on a small island about 20 minutes from the town of Semporna in Sabah, Malaysia, a group of 3 to 4 Bajau Laut children shadow us as we walk from house to house down the stretch of beach looking for fishermen to interview for a marine turtle conservation project. After a while they lose interest and scatter off to play. It’s a weekday and they should be in school like the other village children. But they can’t. They can’t because they are Bajau Laut, a people not recognised as citizens of Malaysia. Only citizens get to go to the government school on the island. Without a nationality, the government easily turns a blind eye on them; the Bajau Laut are literally thrown out to sea without access to public education, health care, social services, and formal employment. All this despite having been born and living in the country they consider home.

The Bajau Laut are a semi-nomadic sea-oriented group who have, for centuries, lived off the abundance of the sea supplying marine products for the regional maritime trade. Their historical home range spanned the waters of the southern Philippines, Sabah in Malaysia, and Sulawesi in Indonesia. When contemporary political boundaries were drawn, the Bajau Laut were inadvertently overlooked, not least because land-oriented governments did not know how to deal with their ephemeral lifestyle that blurred international maritime borders. Nowadays many have settled in water villages but still return to the sea periodically doing what they have always done – catching and trading fish, sharks, and other marine animals, and paying visits to ancestral places. Yet, their mobility is a liability, viewed as undesirable and a threat to national security by the Malaysian government. Thus, the Bajau Laut continue to be treated as outsiders and rejected as decent citizens. So on that school day the Bajau Laut children continued to play under the sun.

The Bajau Laut are a case of marine-dependent people who live under extreme economic, social, and political marginalization. But many fishing communities across the region also face similar deprivation albeit to a lesser extent, constantly at the edge of poverty with lack of access to adequate health and education, waste management, clean drinking water and financial tools.

Through the wisdom of science-based management, people who already have so little are often the ones who are expected to sacrifice their fishing way of life for the greater good of marine conservation and ocean sustainability.

Good stewardship begets good conservation; basic social services are the building blocks of stewardship. Long lasting results for protecting marine biodiversity and fisheries are unlikely to be achieved if people do not have a certain level of independence from relying on the sea. How can fishermen without a bank account and access to credit be able to break free from the constant debt they rack up with fish buyers, often the only people capable and willing to pay them cash up front to buy daily necessities? The only option is to keep fishing. What about the financial strain or lost fishing time from prolonged illness in the family made worse by the lack of reliable medical care? The only option is to fish harder. And without an education, what alternative do fishers have when their fishing ground becomes off limits? The only option is to go somewhere else to fish. Are we beginning to see a pattern?

Often the basic needs of a community are not recognized by otherwise well-intentioned marine sustainability interventions. Arguably it is not the responsibility of environmental NGOs to ensure that communities have those necessities. Yet if interventions like marine protected areas strive to be ‘socially acceptable and beneficial’, then perhaps efforts should be made to ensure the presence of conditions that will allow for intended benefits to materialize. Otherwise, it will be all too easy to conduct a series of planning workshops with fishers and be lured into thinking that it fulfills the ‘social’ side of marine conservation. More broadly, the argument for situating marine management within the broader context of social development can be made on the grounds of securing people’s basic rights to such necessities as food, shelter and adequate standard of living. This is the stance taken in the FAO’s Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines, which promotes a rights-based approach to fisheries management and has received international buy-in. This shift in perspective may be what is needed to instigate real lasting social improvements in fishing communities. At the least, it will make this point clear: take care of people, and the sea will be taken care of. I wait to see the day Bajau Laut children in Sabah take their first step into a classroom.

A Bajau Laut family looking for fish in the net as the sun starts to set over the Sulu Sea, Sabah. Photo by L. Teh

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