Our Land is the Sea is a short documentary film about three generations of a Bajau community in Wakatobi National Park, Indonesia. The film explores how they're navigating drastic cultural and environmental change.

 

Biodiversity + Cultural Diversity are inexorably linked

As plant and animal diversity rapidly disappear, human cultures—and the long-cultivated knowledge they sustain—are disappearing too. Our Land is the Sea (Indonesian: Air Tanahku) explores how these parallel trends are related through the diverse perspectives of members of a seafaring Bajau community grappling with coral reef extinction, economic change, ethnic discrimination, and changing practices of Islam.

 The mangrove forests around the islands of Wakatobi National Park provide a nursery to marine life and a buffer between land and sea. They figure prominently into Bajau mythology and rituals.

The mangrove forests around the islands of Wakatobi National Park provide a nursery to marine life and a buffer between land and sea. They figure prominently into Bajau mythology and rituals.

Who are the Bajau people?

"Bajau" or "Bajo" is an overarching term for a number of groups of nomadic people who have traditionally lived their lives on the sea. Bajau communities are found across the Coral Triangle, a marine territory that encompasses the oceans surrounding Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea, and contains more than 75% of the world's known coral species. Although Bajau groups use different names, they speak a common language and consider themselves to be part of the same cultural community. We have chosen to use the term "Bajau" in this film at the request of our local partners in Sampela, who hope that their stories represent the challenges facing many Bajau communities who depend on the ocean as the source of their culture and livelihoods.  

The sea is our kingdom.
But we do not control the ocean. It is the ocean that controls our lives.
— Andar

Bajau people relate to the ocean as a collection of places, each with their own history and associations with ancestral spirits. The interviews and research conducted in the course of making this film explore how this worldview informs Bajau people’s relationship to the natural world and their practice of Islam. The film also explores how discrimination against non-normative practices of Islam and other indigenous religions of the archipelago is contributing to the loss of cultural knowledge in Indonesia.

 Ahdan, fisherman from Sampela

Ahdan, fisherman from Sampela

a community in the sea

The village of Sampela stands over the shallow waters of a coral atoll in the Tukang Besi Archipelago in Wakatobi National Park, Southeast Sulawesi. Over the last half century, this previously nomadic community has been driven by government policies and economic change towards a more sedentary lifestyle. Despite increasing pressure to move to land and become “modern” Indonesian citizens, the people of Sampela continue to insist upon living at sea. Sampela is thus the product of ongoing innovation carried out with limited resources in the face of constant challenge and change.

When my grandparents passed away they took their knowledge with them.
Now no one in my family can carry it on.
— Saipa

Today, as marine resources disappear and the effects of climate change intensify, the people of Sampela are confronting the reality that they may finally be out of options for maintaining their lives at sea. Our Land is the Sea documents the perspectives of people from three generations in Sampela in the midst of this situation. The film is not only a record of their personal stories of adaptation in the face of great change, but also a commentary on the importance of protecting diversity, both human and other than human.

 Respected Bajau elder, Mbo Sayatina, right, performs a ritual to ensure a safe pregnancy for a soon-to-be mother.

Respected Bajau elder, Mbo Sayatina, right, performs a ritual to ensure a safe pregnancy for a soon-to-be mother.

About the production

Our Land is the Sea grew out of a long-term collaboration between Bajau community members Andar and Saipa—who are featured in the film—anthropologist Kelli Swazey, and digital storyteller Matt Colaciello. The footage in the documentary was filmed during four multiple-week trips to Southeast Sulawesi by the filmmakers in 2018 and 2016. The film was edited in Yogyakarta.

The film is part of the Voicing Diversity Project, a collaboration between Center for Southeast Asian Studies UHM and The Center for Cross-cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University, a research and public education center that focuses on religious life in Indonesia and the diversity it contains. These films were supported by a grant from the US Department of Education as part of the Center’s Religion and Diversity Initiative. The project aims at creating educational resources on diversity in Southeast Asia for educational institutions in the US and Indonesia. Our Land is the Sea is currently being shown in universities and other public spaces around Indonesia in open forums to encourage discussion about the issues of religious and cultural diversity, indigenous rights, culture and environment, and conservation.

 Kelli and Andar translate an interview from Baong Sama, the Bajau mother tongue, into Indonesian

Kelli and Andar translate an interview from Baong Sama, the Bajau mother tongue, into Indonesian

Kelli Swazey speaks about the film at TEDx Ubud

The Bajau community featured in Our Land is the Sea demonstrates how we can't protect biodiversity without protecting cultural diversity. As Dr. Kelli Swazey explains in this talk, the Bajau are grappling with the impacts of coral reef extinction, environmental degradation, and discrimination.

Further reading

Afiff, Suraya, and Celia Lowe. "Claiming Indigenous Community: Political Discourse and Natural Resource Rights in Indonesia." Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 32, no. 1 (2007): 73-97.

Andaya, Barbara Watson.  "Seas, Oceans and Cosmologies in Southeast Asia." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 48, no. 03 (2017): 349-71.

Andaya, Leonard. "Applying the seas perspective in the study of eastern Indonesia in the early modern period" In Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1350-1800, edited by Keat Gin Ooi and Hoang Anh Tuan. London: Routledge, 2015.

Asian Development Bank. State of the Coral Triangle: Indonesia. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2014.

Chou, Cynthia. Indonesian Sea Nomads: Money, Magic and Fear of the Orang Suku Laut. London & New York: Routledge, 2003.

Clifton, Julian, and Chris Majors. "Culture, Conservation, and Conflict: Perspectives on Marine Protection Among the Bajau of Southeast Asia." Society & Natural Resources 25, no. 7 (2012): 716-25.

Indrawan, Mochamad, Celia Lowe, Sundjaya, Christo Hutabarat, and Aubrey Black. "Co-management and the Creation of National Parks in Indonesia: Positive Lessons Learned from the Togean Islands National Park." Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 57, no. 8 (2013): 1183-199.

Kortschak, Irfan. Invisible People: Poverty and Empowerment in Indonesia. Mandiri: Godown Lontar, 2010.

Lowe, Celia. "The magic of place: Sama at sea and on land in Sulawesi, Indonesia." Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 159, no. 01 (2003): 109-133.

Majors, Chris and Joanna Swiecicka. "Missing the Boat?" Inside Indonesia 82, (Apr-Jun 2005) http://www.insideindonesia.org/missing-the-boat.

Nimmo, Harry Arlo. Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001.

Nolde, Lance. "Great is our relationship with the sea: Charting the maritime realm of the Sama of Southeast Sulawesi." Explorations 9, (2009) 15–33.

Saat, Gusni. "The identity and social mobility of Sama-Bajau." SARI: Jurnal Alam dan Tamadun Melayu 21 (2003): 3-11.

Warren, Carol. "Consciousness in Social Transformation: the Bajau Laut of East Malaysia." Dialectical Anthropology 5, no. 3 (1980) 227-38.