REFLECTIONS: Imagining a trans-national ancestral domain and a comprehensive knowledge base for the Sama Badjau

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 06 December) — Perceived as Sea nomads for eternity, apparently imagined by land dwellers as ship-wrecked Bedouins and without a written history. They have been considered as not only marginalized, but as the “elephant in the room” as well, considered by land dwellers as uneducated, no culture, no history, merely living on the fringes of society.

Known as Badjau, Sama Dilat, Sama Laut, Palau and by many other names, they have been seen as remnants of a civilization that has been lost to obscurity.

This, however, is a misconception, for many people have built their success and their academic mettle on the Sama Badjau. In fact many have made scientific discoveries and breakthroughs.

The First International Sama Dilaut conference last Dec. 1-3, 2015 held at the Mindanao State University-Tawi-tawi College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-TCTO) in Bongao, Tawi Tawi highlighted many of the studies and researchers on the Sama Dilaut.

One of the primary highlights discussed in the conference was that the Badjaus have been displaced on many occasions due to other cultural groups who encroach on their livelihoods and this actually resulted to many fleeing their traditional areas of living.

Despite international and local laws on the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples, and refugees, no standing international convention exists to protect the rights of internally displaced persons that fall in the same category such as the Sama Dilaut who, although like other cultural minorities have existed before the establishment of borders, are unable to maximize the protection of these statutes for the fact they are primarily seaborne and have a wide area of dispersal (Indonesia-Malaysia-Brunei-Philippines-Palau).

Creation of a Trans-national Ancestral domain for the Sama Dilaut

Names and labels may differ from the dominant majority groups but the need to establish a Trans-national Sama Dilaut ancestral domain appears a very strong need. Considering that they are in the midst of a globalized economy where Japanese trawlers go into the Southeast Asian seas, and each country passes through each other’s maritime lanes, the Sama Dilaut has been unable to cope up with both the dominant cultural groups and the transnational fishing boats who have continually encroached their domicile with either aggressive behaviour or modern fishing technologies.

In the words of one of them “Bang mbal kami palahi, lai kami tinimbak sin Asuk maka Lannang min kappal siga” (If we don’t move out, we would be shot by the Tausug and the Chinese from their boats).

In the Philippine Context, the recognition of an ancestral domain claim and the eventual transformation into a certificate of ancestral domain title (CADT) has been made possible in several cases, one in Palawan and the other in Zamboanga City.

The legal mechanisms in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have yet to reach this level of legislation. As such the challenge of a trans-national ancestral domain that is both respective of national boundaries and yet inclusive of the rights of the Sama Badjau is still a challenge, of which cultural workers like the writer, aims to advocate and see the possibilities of arriving at a framework for both southeast asian countries and the United Nations to work with.

Developing a comprehensive knowledge base of the Sama Dilaut

Being one of the marginal indigenous cultural groups spanning several countries, researches have shown that they have managed (for those who continue to live in traditional domiciles) to preserve their indigenous knowledge. Their encyclopaedic knowledge of the sea, their diving navigational prowess have intrigued many researchers who have managed to delve only the surface of the depths of their cultural legacy.

Developing a knowledge base which incorporates all their indigenous knowledge which can present new discoveries in oceanography, pharmacology, marine fisheries and other fields can open new avenues of understanding the sea, climate change and Marine ecology. The MSU-TCTO Sama Studies Center can be an information clearing for such a comprehensive endeavour, tapping independent and institutional researchers in an encyclopaedic approach to consolidate one of the last nomads of the Southeast Asia.

Important role in the Coral triangle

Being situated in the Coral triangle and having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, the Sama Dilaut is, and should be incorporated as one of the key elements of protecting the Coral triangle which is situated between Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines, their participation in the preservation of this vast ecological research can ensure a sustainable future through protection of their people, culture and ancestral domicile.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. The author attended the First International Conference on the Sama Dilaut last Dec 1-3 in MSU-TCTO and presented a paper on “The political struggle of the Sama Dilaut in Zamboanga City.” The author is the Muslim and IP Concerns Coordinator of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University and one of the Board of Advisers/Scholars of Al-Qalam Institute for Muslim Identities in Southeast Asia at the Ateneo de Davao University)