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Sabah sea gypsies grapple with dwindling fish catch, sinking villages as climate change threatens way of life

Sabah sea gypsies grapple with dwindling fish catch, sinking villages as climate change threatens way of life

A Bajau Laut community off Mabul island near Semporna, Sabah. (Photo: Amir Yusof)

KOTA KINABALU: As the sun began to set, fisherman Lan Tumpat docked his rickety wooden boat.

The 30-year-old then hoisted his oar, a fishing rod and an empty pail onto the battered wooden planks in front of his home.

“No fish today. The winds were blowing strong and I came back,” said Mr Lan, wiping sweat off his brow with a rag.

“Not worth risking being capsized in the dark,” he added in broken Malay.

Mr Lan lives with his wife and five children at the floating village of Kampong Tanjung Aru Lama, around 50m off the coast of Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu.

Like his father and grandfather, Mr Lan, a stateless sea gypsy, feeds his family by combing the South China Sea for grouper, red carp and catfish.

However, he said fishing has become more hazardous by the day in recent years.

“I’ve been fishing all my life. But over the last few years, the weather changes very quickly and winds are more unpredictable. There is more danger of capsizing,” said Mr Lan.

Residents of Tanjung Aru Lama would store their boats on platforms in case they get carried away by the strong tide. (Photo: Amir Yusof)

Like the dozens of other sea gypsies who fish for food in his village, Mr Lan uses a small sampan he built himself and paddles with an oar. Sailing in the dark amid a storm is not an option for him.  

Mr Lan is one of thousands of ethnic Bajau Laut people, or sea gypsies, whose families fled to Sabah in the 1970s to escape the war between the Philippine government and the independent movement by the Moro National Liberation Front, resettling in many parts of the state such as Lahad Datu, Semporna, Sandakan and even off the coasts of Kota Kinabalu.

They live a nomadic lifestyle, fishing for sustenance and staying on stilt houses in coastal waters.

Experts say that rising sea temperatures, brought on by global warming, and extreme changes in weather patterns have diminished their ability to fish for food.

Additionally, rising sea levels in Borneo could also sink the Bajau villages, threatening their very existence.

The Bajau Laut live on wooden houses with zinc roofs off the coast of cities in Sabah. (Photo: Amir Yusof)


Mr Laili Basir, a social activist who works closely with Bajau Laut communities along the eastern coast of Sabah, told CNA that the sea gypsies tend to bear the brunt of climate change because of their proximity to the ocean.

“They are frontliners at the sea and for issues like (global warming, rising sea levels), they are impacted first,” said Mr Laili, who founded the HUGS project, a non-governmental initiative to educate and give out necessities to the Bajau Laut.

Although Mr Laili is based in Pahang in peninsular Malaysia, he visits Sabah regularly to do humanitarian work.

Activist Laili Basir has been helping Bajau Laut communities in Sabah since 2006. (Photo: Laili Basir)

He noted that some Bajau have reported dwindling fish catch recently as the weather has become more unpredictable.

“The Bajau are very adaptable to changes in the environment. Each fisherman typically needs to catch 1kg of fish every day to feed the family, as opposed to commercial fisherman who fish 10 times that amount,” said Mr Laili.

“But over the last five years or so, the weather changes have been more extreme and this has made it difficult for them to fish in their small sampans,” added the 49-year-old.

Malaysia’s latest biennial update report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change submitted in 2018 indicates that its temperature, rainfall and sea level have been rising for the past four decades, a trend that is projected to continue for the next 30 years.

Average temperature in Malaysia is projected to increase by between 1.2 degrees Celsius and 1.6 degrees Celsius by 2050, the report states, leading to various implications such as extreme weather and unpredictable waters off its coasts.

READ: Commentary - A decade of climate change has had devastating impact. But there’s hope yet

Dr Serina Rahman, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute who has studied sustainable coastal development in Southeast Asia, noted that increasingly frequent changes in weather and wind patterns have impacted coastal communities in Malaysia, including the Bajau Laut.

“Indigenous and fishing communities depend on safe seas to earn a living and these increasingly strong winds, changes in weather will affect their catch when they are at sea. So it then affects their food security and livelihoods,” said Dr Serina, who is based in Johor. 

She pointed out that artisanal fisherman, including the Bajau Laut in Sabah are reporting more frequent cases of capsizing while trying to fish in uncertain weather conditions.

Most Baju Laut fishermen are only fishing to feed their families and are unwilling to switch to commercial fishing boats, she also said. “These are not fishermen who can travel out further in big boats. They are their own bosses and traditional fishing is cultural heritage, a tradition, a ritual and a generational pride thing,” said Dr Serina.

Mr Lan who lives in Kampong Tanjung Aru Lama, is an example.

“Fishing and being a Bajau is my life. I will never change,” he said. “Moving to the city and finding another kind of work is not an option for me and my children.”


Besides extreme weather, the Bajau Laut communities in Sabah also have to contend with rising sea levels, which could destroy their homes in the coming years.

According to a report by Malaysia’s National Hydraulic Research Institute (Nahrim), sea levels have been rising by between 0.2mm and 4.4mm annually in the country since 2010 due to climate change.

An example of coastal flooding at Pendas Laut in Gelang Patah, Johor. Coastal flooding is viewed as a possible result of sea level rising. (Photo: Serina Rahman) ​​​​​​​

Nahrim added that this could lead to inundated coasts and affect around 8 million people. The report also said that among the areas with the highest sea level rise are along the east coast of Sabah, which could see an increase of between 0.4mm and 1.1mm.

The towns expected to be worst hit are Tawau, Kudat, Lahad Datu, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu, all of which have Bajau Laut communities living nearby.

Associate Professor Haliza Abdul Rahman, who is with University Putra Malaysia’s department of environmental and occupation health, told CNA that sea level rise could impact coastal communities like the Bajau Laut by causing more frequent coastal flooding, coastal erosion, impeded drainage and submerging the land they live on.

Mr Laili, the activist said some of the Bajau communities in eastern Sabah have begun to notice these changes.

“Some of them have realised that their homes are getting closer and closer to the water. There are also some whose homes are already completely submerged,” said Mr Laili.

“Whatever happens though, the Bajau are able to adapt. They will build their homes on higher stilts or move to an area less prone to flooding,” he said.

However, not all Bajau Laut communities are able to move or act in accordance with rising sea levels. 

A Bajau Laut fisherman who lives in Kampong Tanjung Aru Lama, who wanted to be known only as Janau, told CNA that he has noticed that the sea level has been getting higher over the last few years.

He said that the higher tide has resulted in more flooding in the village, and washed trash from the surrounding areas to the homes.

Trash is all around in Kampong Tanjung Aru Lama. (Photo: Amir Yusof)

When CNA visited the area, there was plastic, metal and wooden trash surrounding the floating village.

Janau said: “It’s not ideal but we just get on with life. We are not going to move because everything we need is here.”


Assoc Prof Haliza said that there is a need to educate Bajau Laut communities on the causes and impacts of climate change.

“Local attitudes toward the environment will play a central role in adjustments to climate change,” she said.

“The capacity of societies to change both belief and behaviour regarding the use of the environment will be key in mitigating these risks,” Assoc Prof Haliza added.

READ: Living in a sea of trash: Sabah’s stateless children face bleak future

Dr Serina stated that the situation with the Bajau Laut is “tricky” because of the fact that they are stateless, meaning that the government does not recognise their existence. 

“Unfortunately they are undocumented and in Sabah, often treated as unwanted intruders to the state,” said Dr Serina.

“Given this situation, they won't have any voice on any level. I'm not even sure that climate change issues are really high on their list of needs. What they need is regular schooling and education for the kids, healthcare and documentation."

She added: "Things like environmental conservation and climate change barely come across their radar when they are struggling for survival.”

READ: Commentary: We can no longer ignore the health risks of climate change in Asia

Another issue is language and communication, said Mr Laili, as the Baju Laut speak in their own language and struggle to grasp basic general knowledge like money.

 “What we teach them is very basic things, how to read, to write, how to count money,” he said.

“Once we break this communication barrier, we can talk about issues (like climate change) that could impact their future, and the lives of their next generations,” he added.

Source: CNA/am


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