Sampela is where children learn to swim before they can walk the crooked, rotting planks connecting fetishized stilt houses constructed upon coral foundations. Sampela is where chickens learn how to fly over the sewage-filled water, hopping from one thatched roof to the next. Sampela is where the oppressed misfits of Indonesian society, including the LGBTQ+ community, find refuge. Sampela is essentially a non-place, but it is also a place of all.
Last fall, I had the opportunity to live with a host family for two weeks in Sampela, a Bajau fishing village located off the coast of Wakatobi, Sulawesi, in Indonesia. The Bajau are a stateless group of fishermen who were originally nomadic, living in house-boats and traveling from one reef to the next once the fish supply dwindled. Throughout the 50s, the Indonesian government instituted several programs that forced the Bajau to settle, hoping to control and integrate the group into Indonesian society. The Bajau are located all over Southeast Asia, and they are both linguistically and culturally distinct from each of the countries in which they reside. Their economy is based almost entirely upon fishing, and available work beyond this is mostly limited to the production of handcrafted swim goggles, nets, spear-guns, and dug-out canoes.
My time is Sampela mainly consisted of accompanying my host family when it was time to “pergi ke laut,” or go to sea. Depending on the family, this usually occurs once or twice per day. While most women stay at home caring for their children, the men venture out into the village’s surrounding waters with nets, spear-guns, or hand lines—each fisherman is known for his specialty in one or more of these fishing practices. Going fishing not only provides sustenance for the Bajau community, but also serves as respite from the oppressive heat within the coral flats; it is a means of survival and a way of life.
Upon going to sea with my host family for the first time, I was alarmed to discover that we were fishing in Hatta, an area of the ocean that had been designated as a protected zone by the Indonesian government. I reluctantly became complicit in helping my host family spearfish, but I returned to the community filled with questions. Over the next few days, I spent time speaking with my friends and community elders, who taught me about the regulations that the Bajau mostly disregard; after all, the waters are patrolled infrequently and somewhat predictably. For the fishermen, it’s worth it to ignore the rules in favor of fishing in the protected areas, since these are the most conducive to catching enough fish to feed one’s family day after day.
Understandably, many people view the Bajau’s fishing practices as extremely destructive to the ecosystems in which they reside, but the way in which policymakers have tried to remedy the situation has proven to be quite ineffective. Policymakers have drawn boundary lines and sent out agents to enforce said areas of the ocean, all with very little attention given to the nuanced history of the Bajau and their resulting fishing practices. Yes, the policymakers’ cursory regulations may have been formed with the objective of both protecting the environment and ensuring that the Bajau won’t deplete the reefs on which they so heavily rely, but this ‘good intention’ has little bearing on the fact that their agenda is incompatible with the group’s culturally situated practices. If the current fishing habits are maintained, the status quo will almost certainly lead to the group’s demise; nonetheless, because many Bajau are accustomed to concerning themselves with surviving today, this is not a particularly relevant concern.
Community members of Sampela nostalgically recount times when one could go to sea and very quickly and easily find enough fish for the day. The current situation has become quite grim— I recall motor boating from one depleted reef to the next, my host father hoping to get lucky each time. In the case of the disappearance of a reef robust enough to provide sustenance for the few thousand Sampelan citizens, the only foreseeable plan B would be relocation to the nearby island, Kaledupa. However, the Bajau are incredibly marginalized, both by the Indonesian government and by other Indonesians who deem them to be an inferior class, and they would hardly be accepted in Kaledupa (and that’s not even taking into account the worker skill mismatch that would act as a strong barrier to economic integration). Thus, relevant agencies must create policy that encourages the Bajau to develop sustainably, while still allowing the group to maintain their cultural practices. The answer to how one should achieve this daunting task is definitely not simple, but it would be a whole lot easier if people would stop for a minute and just listen.
International development must move away from the all-too-frequently-true stereotype of a bunch of professionals sitting around a boardroom table making misinformed policy decisions that lack cultural relativism. Instead, it must move toward a localized approach that takes into account the historical realities that have shaped that populations who are being addressed, and it must listen to the voices of those who yield the most wisdom in the matter, but as a result of their diminished status in society, are rarely heard.