Historical Floating Civilizations: Badjao and Manobo tribes
The Badjao are an ancient seafaring civilization. They first came to the Philippines around 500AD. Not long after arriving, unknown forces caused the Badjao to take to the sea. This could have been pressure from neighboring peoples, difficulty farming, or some kind of food production advantage in living in the ocean. But whatever the case, the Badjao, for 1,500 years, have been living full time in the sea, as the worlds first, and perhaps only fully aquatic civilization.
The Badjao tribe are endemic to the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea areas. These are areas that we covered in our ‘Where can I Live?’ blog post as being optimal areas for seasteading. This region does not receive hurricanes or Typhoons, the average wave height is below 3 meters even during the heaviest storms, and typically less than 1 meter tall across the entire sea.
The men of the tribe are talented anglers, particularly in the craftsmanship of pantana fishing (spearfishing). They traditionally lived on houseboats moving through the ocean wherever was needed, to satisfy their fishing requirements. The Badjao are moreover skilled divers plunging for pearls. To this day, these activities still play a major portion in the lives of the Badjao people. They collect the fish and pearls and sell them at most markets in Cebu City and these activities are customarily their primary source of income.
Here we can see the full range of historical Badjao civilization. Their numbers are difficult to estimate due to their international and stateless nature, but they typically stay within this area, with the Philippines to the north, and Malaysia and Indonesia to the south.
The Badjao are often called ‘Sea Gypsies’ and for all these generations have been traveling and living in the same seas. These ocean nomads have developed special boats, most often made out of bamboo, on which they live. The design is flexible enough, and accommodating enough, that it can be repaired with almost any type of wood and many different junk materials like plastic. With so much waste floating in the ocean, the Badjao can repair their boats after storms out of the flotsam and jetsam of the waters.
The Badjao tribe is and always has been stateless, with no government passport, IDs, or travel documents, they are not allowed into public schools or airports. Unlike the Uros tribe we covered in our last blogpost, this does not prevent them from traveling. Instead of being trapped in a small lake, this tribe is free to move about between the major land nations that occupy this part of the world. Most are located near the coasts of the Philippines, while some can go to Malaysia, Brunei, or even as far south as Indonesia.
Many of the Badjao have historically built bamboo houses on stilts all across the coastline of the Philippines, and due to expanding piracy during the 1960’s huge numbers of the Badjao were forced to move inland to live under police protection and supervision. But today most of the Badjao live in houseboats, clustered near the coastline of Southern Mindanao. The Badjao are non-muslim, and spend most of their time involved in fishing and commercial activities, but sometimes taking days, long journeys to we know not where. Most afternoons they come to the seaside terrace of the Lantaka Hotel, one of the oldest in Zamboanga, to sell their wares all neatly displayed on the platform they have rigged up on one of their boats. Side by side with the most fantastic corals and cowry is the ticug, colorful woven mats. The Badjao children learn to swim and dive at an extremely young age and are keen to demonstrate their agility by diving for coins, tossed into the water by tourists. When the sales are over, the Badjao move out to sea, put up their awnings, and fall off to sleep to the swaying rhythm of the waters that lap their home.
The Manobo Tribe of the Agusan Marsh
The Philippines pronounced the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary a secured zone in 1996. It ranges roughly 101,000 acres. On the worldwide level, it’s recognized as both a “wetland of international importance” beneath the Ramsar Convention and Heritage Park by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Within the lavish, bright-green shrubberies of the Philippines’ Agusan Marsh, settled within the country’s far south Mindanao island, children control canoes through wandering waterways and swim in lakes. The marsh may be a play area, as well as a source of food, shelter, and culture for the Manobo Indigenous tribe that lives there in moored floating houses that rise and fall with the rainy seasons. For hundreds of years, this wetland environment has been veritable heaven for the Manobo individuals who make a living there hunting and fishing. The more than 100,000 inland sections of land are additionally home to about 200 species of feathered creatures, as well as mammals, reptiles, and fish living within the region. This marsh is home to the largest species of crocodiles in the world, which have lived alongside the Manobo Tribe for hundreds of years.
Every year when the rains come, the marsh floods, often rising over 12 feet. This puts any walkways or structures built on stilts completely underwater. As a result, the only houses which can exist here are completely floating. Over the centuries, the Manobo have incorporated new materials into every generation of floating structure they build. Their main source of livelihood is fishing, and one is able to harvest a good quality of endemic fish, like casili (freshwater eel Anguilla sp.) and some of the food fish that have already been introduced, like the giant gourami (Osphronemus gouramy) and tilapia.
Even with this bounty and the rich biodiversity and beauty of Agusan Marsh, the Manobo tribe is living in dire poverty. As with other isolated tribes, the people do not have the capacity to bring their products to the market and trade for themselves. Today the Manodo are a part of Filipino society, and are not in any real way separate from the society, but make on average less than a typical filipino, in large part due to their remote location and lack of trade or proper schools. As time goes on however, economic developments are slowly improving their situation.