Identity and Vulnerability: The Case of Sama-Bajaus

By Regina Junio

Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to climate change as their rights, cultures, livelihoods, traditional knowledge and identities are based on deep and intricate relationships with the environment. Such is the case of the Sama-Bajau of Mariki, Philippines. Mariki was one of the fourteen coastal communities mapped for social vulnerability for climate change by the Ateneo de Zamboanga University in 2013. Mariki is a multi-cultural community but is pre-dominantly occupied by the Sama-Bajau people. Sama-Bajau refers to the Austronesian ethnic groups who are traditionally from the Archipelago of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Sama-Bajaus have sometimes been called the “sea gypsies” due to their traditionally seaborne lifestyle.

In the late 1960s, the prevailing war in the Sulu Archipelago forced communities of Sama-Bajau to move to the northern parts of the Philippines, including Campo Muslim in Zamboanga City, which was declared a reservation area for those displaced by the war. Campo Muslim was later divided into two communities, Rio Hondo and Mariki. Following their traditional lifestyle, most of their houses are built on stilts and a great majority of the households are dependent on sea-based livelihoods including fishing and seaweed farming as their main source of income.

The community has lost a few of their homes and livelihood implements to climate-related hazards. During the monsoon season, they can barely fish and their seaweeds get washed away by strong currents or infected by diseases. Community-based hazard mapping results show that the community’s exposure to these hazards will become even more intense and frequent in the coming years. Despite these threats to their safety and their livelihood, the Sama-Bajau chose to stay in Mariki.

For them, leaving or relocating to safer grounds is not even an option. Participatory social vulnerability assessments showed that the Sama-Bajau as a people are dependent on the sea not just for their livelihood but more specifically for their identity. They pride themselves as fisher folks and seaweed farmers. The center of their socio-cultural practices and identity revolve around their environment and them being fisher folks. This attachment to occupation means that when they are no longer able to continue their means of livelihood, they not only lose their income, but also their identity.

Due to their high attachment to their livelihood, the community has developed only livelihood skills that revolve around fishing. It was also found out that most of the households have a low level of education and lack other types of transferable skills necessary to become open to other types of employment. Due to the high dependence of the Sama-Bajau to coastal resources, environmental changes in recent years have affected the community’s economic base. Their ability to cope may be related to their financial thresholds. As the community’s financial status is also low, poverty and lack of savings makes the community less able to adapt and absorb the cost of change. The community, however, expressed that their level of interest in adapting to change is high. With proper support and adaptation options from the government, the community expressed willingness to adapt to change.

In September 2013, Zamboanga City faced its biggest security crisis, as armed conflict between the forces of the Philippine Government and the faction of the Moro National Liberation Front. The month-long war left Mariki and four other communities displaced, with their homes razed to the ground. Twenty-one months after the conflict, it is sad to note that Mariki residents are still displaced and are in different transitory sites, mostly dependent on the government for their day-to-day needs, feeling helpless, unproductive, and lost.

Results of the community’s social vulnerability assessment prove why even after 21 months they are still unable to rebuild their lives to normal, both economically and socially. The people of Mariki refused relocation, and insisted on returning to Mariki, despite security and climate-related risks. The community, however, cooperated openly with the government in the rebuilding of their new homes in Mariki. They saw it as an opportunity to adapt to change, working hard to ensure that their new homes are culturally sensitive and at the minimum, climate-resilient. They have also used their community hazard map to help the City Government rebuild only on “safe zones” and avoid damage to their mangroves areas. The Sama-Bajau of Mariki are hopeful that as soon as their homes are rebuilt, and with livelihood support from the government, they will be able to also rebuild not just their economic base, but more importantly their lives.