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First Posted on Inside Mindanao: April 4, 2007

Sea-dwelling tribe claims sea as ancestral domain
By Ellen Red

SITANGKAI, TAWI–TAWI––Sowang Pukul, which literally means broken river, has no river at all. It is in the middle of the Sulu Sea and not an island in sight.

Atiyan Gollom told Inside Mindanao that Sowang Pukul used to be the home of the Bajau tribe, also known as Sama Dilaut. Houses of the Bajau called lumah, from afar, are like floating houses. Long wooden posts buried deep into the sandy sea-bottom keep the lumah still.

Location: Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi
Photo by Ellen Red

Through the years, Mr. Gollom, one of the handful Bajau who choose to remain at Sowang Pukul, said that about 300 Bajau families have already left Sowang Pukul and opted to migrate to Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia (which can be reached via 3-hour motorized boat ride); while others opted to settle at the nearby island which can be reached by 20-minute motorized boat ride. Sowang Pukul is part of Sitangkai town, Tawi-Tawi province.

Sabtal Putalhangin, a Bajau teacher at the Mindanao State University High School in Sitangkai town, told Inside Mindanao that the influx of evacuees, belonging to the Tausug tribe from the neighboring province of Sulu, is one of the causes of the Bajau displacement at Sowang Pukul.

Mr. Putalhangin said, "The Bajau tribe is a peace-loving tribe. Conflict with other tribes like that of the Tausug is often dealt with by fleeing to other places."

In a report by the local government of Sitangkai, since the declaration of Martial Law in the 1970s, there has been a continued influx of migrating families, especially the economically displaced Tausug tribe from Sulu province, to Sitangkai town.

In 2004, Mucha Shim Quiling Arquiza, a representative of Lumah Ma Dilaut Center, reported to the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commission on Human Rights Sub-Committee on Human Rights Promotion and Protection Working Group on Minorities that a sizeable number of Filipino deportees driven out by the thousands from Malaysia since early 2000 belongs to the Bajau tribe.

"The present conflict and the insecurity in the Sulu waters have rendered the Sama Dilaut as easy targets of aggression and violence as chances of evading the dominant ethnic groups have become lesser for the Sama Dilaut," Ms. Arquiza, who is a Sama Dilaut or Bajau herself, said in her report to the UN.

She added, "Traditionally itinerant and boat-dwelling people, the Sama Dilaut life and culture rely much on the bounties of the seas.... Without the sea, there is no Sama Dilaut."

In an article published on Culture of Peace Studies Journal of Ateneo de Zamboanga, Perla de Castro wrote, "The loss of their [Bajau] traditional fishing grounds to big commercial fishing businessmen have so exacerbated their pitiful socio-economic condition that in large groups they have taken refuge in key cities of Visayas and Luzon to engage in begging...."

Location: Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi
Photo by Ellen Red

Jaafar Alari, the panglima or the tribal leader of the Bajau in Sitangkai, told Inside Mindanao, "Our ancestors were fortunate as they had very wide fishing ground then."

Panglima Alari said this very wide fishing ground at the Sulu Sea made the ancestors of the Bajau utilized timber-made boats called lepah which were also used as a home—a place to eat, sleep, and fish.

At the back of Panglima Alari's stilt house, an old lepah is displayed—a reminder to the new generation of Bajau of their boat-dwelling ancestors.

Due to the limited fishing ground, Panglima Alari said the Bajau people do not anymore live in lepah, but instead live in stilt houses or lumah—forming sea villages like the one at Sowang Pukul.

Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title

On October 21, 2005, the indigenous cultural community of Bajau in barangays Sangali and Victoria, Zamboanga City was awarded a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) pursuant to Republic Act 8371, otherwise known as the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, an act which recognizes the rights of indigenous cultural communities/indigenous peoples.

The said CADT is the first CADT issued to include the sea. The CADT of the Bajau in Zamboanga City covers 191 hectares, of which 48 hectares is a mangrove area, 12 hectares foreshore, and 131 hectares of the adjacent sea.

The CADT specifically provides that the Bajau community in Sangali and Victoria has the right "to hold in ownership" the 191 hectares "as their private but community property... to develop, control, manage and utilize collectively the said ancestral domain with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities, subject to the condition that the said ancestral domain shall not be sold, disposed, nor destroyed."

In a Memorandum written by Celestino Talpis, Sr., former director of NCIP Region IX to the Commission En Banc of NCIP, "Bajaus are generally wary to outsiders and awarding CADT to their ancestral domain claimed area in Sangali and Victoria will somehow infused to their minds that they are equal to all human beings in this world, worthy to own properties that they will be proud of possessing—a territory free from exterior manipulation and exploitation that have caused most of them to flee to other areas in the country and beg."

In a document submitted to NCIP, the Bajau in Zamboanga City traced their ancestors as coming from the Sulu Sea down to Sabah, Malaysia.

The Bajau in Zamboanga City and the Bajau in Sitangkai share the same culture. They use the same language, calling their tribal leaders as panglima and their houses as lumah. They also build their houses on the sea itself.

While the Bajau in Zamboanga City is recognized by the Philippine government, through the NCIP, for their inherent right to the sea, the Bajau in Sitangkai and other parts of the Sulu Sea have yet to receive similar recognition from the Philippine government.

As Ms. Arquiza reported to the UN, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act is a difficult law to use for claiming their right to ancestral territory because the law is tailored specifically for land-based culture while the Bajau tribe only recognizes ancestral seas.

She added, "On the other hand, the law for Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has only succeeded in setting up limited political machineries presently exclusively enjoyed by elites and political aspirants among majority Bangsamoro tribes. For an economically marginalized and socio-culturally excluded group such as the Sama Dilaut, there is no useful provision in the ARMM Act."


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