Community Essay - 2006 | volume 2 | issue 2

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Challenges for sustainability in cultures where regard for the future may not be present

M. James C. Crabbe
Luton Institute of Research in the Applied Natural Sciences, University of Bedfordshire, Park Square, Luton LU1 3JU United Kingdom (email:

Author's Personal Statement: A concept of time depends upon both culture and linguistics, and one person’s future may be another person’s present. Temporal and spatial concepts are crucial to sustainability issues and a concept of “the future” may depend upon ethnicity, linguistic background, lifestyle, and life expectancy. Many currently threatened natural systems are in locations where the indigenous people have a linguistic and conceptual background very different from those in the so-called developed countries. One example is the Bajau people who live off the southeast coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia, close to highly endangered coral reefs. How can we connect the “future perspective” mismatch between Austronesian people like the Bajau and conservationists from developed countries who want to protect the reefs for future generations? Many challenges are ahead, not the least being a practical one of providing the right education for the Bajau to show how certain actions – for example, “no-take” fishing zones – can help achieve their aspirations. Perhaps even more important is the moral challenge of reassessing our own assumptions about worthwhile aspirations, about what is good for the Bajau – and similar people – and their rights and roles in determining the outcomes.

Keyword: resource management, conservation, developing countries, coral reefs, fishing communitites, cultural values, sustainable development, socioeconomics

Citation: Crabbe M. 2006. Challenges for sustainability in cultures where regard for the future may not be present. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 2(2):57-61. Published online Aug 02, 2006. http:///archives/vol2iss2/communityessay.crabbe.html


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

– T. S. Elliot, “Burnt Norton,” The Four Quartets


The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “sustain” as “keep up adequately; keep from failing.” The notion of time is central to a concept of sustainability, as to sustain something we need to nourish and nurture it and keep it from failing over a period of time. In the West, our vision of time enables us to discuss system sustainability, whether it is of a natural system, for example a rainforest or a coral reef, or a human-made system, such as the automobile industry. A future vision is central to sustainability.

Many currently threatened natural systems are situated where the indigenous people have a linguistic and conceptual background very different from our own. Not only do they have different language roots (see, e.g., Terrell, 2004; Chow et al. 2005), they have varying models for the concept of “the future” and “time,” as is the case for the Suriname Maroons (Heemskerk, 2003). Other people with Austronesian languages, such as the Bajau, do not have a word for “future” as we understand it (Donohue, 1996). One goal of a “Western” approach to sustainability is to ensure that future generations have ample options (Tonn, 2004). This situation presents a mismatch in understanding and in application, with severe consequences for both sides, not to mention consequences for the ecosystems that need sustaining. This essay explores such an ecosystem, along with some of the challenges it poses and potential solutions.

One-third of all marine fish species and tens of thousands of other species are found in coral reefs, from which 6 million tons of fish are caught annually. This activity level not only provides an income for commercial fishing fleets, but also supports numerous communities that rely on local fish stocks for nutrition. The annual global economic value of coral reefs has been estimated to be around US$375 billion (see, e.g., Cesar, 1996; Cesar et al. 1997). Modern reefs have existed for approximately 50 million years. How much longer the reefs can survive is often asked in the developed world, particularly as global warming, resort development, and other human endeavors are resulting in rapid reef degradation (Souter & Linden, 2005; Wilkinson et al. 2006). But artisanal fishers who live on the reefs may not understand the question, at least not as we might. Their vision of “the future” with respect to the reefs may be very short term, if it exists at all.

One example of this phenomenon is found in Indonesia’s Wakatobi Marine National Park (Crabbe et al. 2004a; Crabbe et al. 2006), located in the Tukangbesi archipelago, southeast of Sulawesi, as shown in Map 1. Between the islands of Hoga and Kaledupa there is a Bajau community at Sampela (see Map 2).

Map 1. Southeast Sulawesi and the Tukangbesi Archipelago. The islands shown in Map 2 are in the archipelago south east of the island of Sulawesi.

Map 1 Southeast Sulawesi and the Tukangbesi Archipelago. The islands shown in Map 2 are in the archipelago south east of the island of Sulawesi.

The term “Bajau” is applied to a variety of seafaring peoples whose scattered settlements extend across the South China Sea.Known variously as Badjaw, Bajau, Sama di Laut, or Bajo, they are one of three major groups of nomadic, or formerly nomadic, maritime foraging societies native to Insular Southeast Asia. Also in this group are the Moken/Moklen, of the Mergui Archipelago and coastal Thailand, and the Orang Laut, of the Riau archipelago. The Sama-Bajau are the largest of the three groups, and arguably the most widely dispersed ethno-linguistic group indigenous to the region. Groups of Sama-Bajau speakers can be found over an area of 1.25 million square miles, from the southern Philippines to Borneo and Sulawesi, reaching as far as Flores and the Moluccas (Sather, 1997). The Sama di Laut typically maintain a primarily subsistence-based economy, exploiting some of the world’s richest marine ecosystems—the unique combination of coral reefs and mangrove forests that characterize littoral Southeast Asia. They have traditionally lived in houseboats, migrating between “moorages” over a wide area according to fishing conditions, political situations, and kin obligations. Nomadic-maritime groups in the Philippines use the autonym Sama (Pallesen, 1985). If they need to differentiate themselves from genetically-related shore-dwelling peoples, they call themselves “Sama di Laut” or “Sama of the sea” (Nimmo, 2001). The term “Bajau” appears to be of Indonesian origin and refers to boat-dwelling peoples; this identifier has been adopted throughout Borneo as a generic term for the whole Sama-Bajau linguistic group. The Philippine government distinguishes in its census between the shore Sama and the nomadic “Bajau.”

Map 2. Islands and settlements in the Tukangbesi archipelago, south east of Sulawesi in Indonesia (see Map 1). The Bajau community at Sampela is situated between the islands of Hoga and Kaledupa in the Wakatobi Marine National Park

Map 2 Islands and settlements in the Tukangbesi archipelago, south east of Sulawesi in Indonesia (see Map 1). The Bajau community at Sampela is situated between the islands of Hoga and Kaledupa in the Wakatobi Marine National Park.

Why these groups appear to lack a “Western” appreciation of the future is unclear. It may be that something inherent in maritime nomadism has contributed to their truncated view. Nothing in their recent history, apart from their day-to-day dependence upon artisanal fishing and their short life expectancy, seems to have contributed to their apparent short-termism.

The local Bajau village in Wakatobi, Sampela consists of approximately 200 houses located on top of stilts embedded into fine sand flats and is home to roughly 1,300 people. The Bajau people depend on the sand flats and coral-reef community for food. This particular community has existed only since about the middle of the twentieth century and all the dwellings are built upon coral that has been mined from the area. Coral mining–the use of corals taken out of the reefs by mechanical means and used as building materials–is a real problem for the region’s reefs. There is currently a lively trade in the corals mined on the reef for use as building materials, both in the village and on the large neighboring island of Kaledupa.Mining is responsible for the nearly complete loss of massive corals that settled and began to grow before 1950. The Bajau village is built almost entirely on foundations of coral mined from the area nearest to the settlement (Figure 1). Based on economic considerations alone, the local community needs to replace coral construction with cement and concrete. A case study in Lombok , Indonesia estimated that for every US$10 net profit gained through coral mining, there was a net loss of US$245 through diminishment of fisheries, coast protection, and tourism (Cesar, 1996).

The Bajau village experiences high energy storm waves during December through February and the loss of the protective coral barrier will have severe consequences for the erosion rates of the sand flats upon which the village is situated. To retain the reef wall’s integrity, and to reduce the amount of sediment depositing on the reef, the sandflats should be biostabilized, for example, by the promotion of seagrass communities. Curtailing the mining of non-branching corals will also help to protect the reef environment and provide a barrier to dissipate storm-wave energy (Crabbe et al. 2004a; Crabbe & Smith, 2005, 2006).

Figure 1. The Bajau village of Sampela built upon corals from local reefs mined by the villagers

Figure 1 The Bajau village of Sampela built upon corals from local reefs mined by the villagers (photo by M. James C. Crabbe).

Bomb fishing, also a major source of coral degradation, is estimated to destroy 3.75% of the live coral cover each year in some areas (Pet-Soede et al. 1999). Fishers use chemical bombs made from fertilizer and kerosene or diesel fuel to kill or stun fish, making them easy to collect. While bomb fishing may provide quick profits, the practice destroys the structure of the coral reef and the habitats that maintain fish populations.

Cyanide fishing is another technique that wreaks havoc on coral reefs. Divers crush cyanide tablets into plastic-squirt bottles of seawater and puff the solution at fish on coral heads. Systematic scientific testing of cyanide’s impact on reefs is scant, but the chemical can undoubtedly kill corals, and its toxic effects on fish are well known. The fish often hide in crevices, obliging the divers to pry and hammer the reefs apart to collect their stunned prey. Cyanide fishing also poses health risks to fishers through accidental exposure to the poison and careless use of often shoddy compressed-air diving gear by untrained divers. These destructive fishing practices are used by members of the Bajau community, as well by Indonesians from outside the local Bajau area (Crabbe et al. 2004b).

Despite their islands’ designation as a marine protected area, and despite financial help from the World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank, the Bajau are trapped in a “development cycle” of increased aspirations, lack of capital, dependence on wage labor, and natural-resource depletion with the increased degradation of the coral reefs. Their plight is mirrored by peoples with similar linguistic backgrounds who lack a future perspective in sustainability and who populate threatened ecosystems (Huang & Tanangkingsing, 2005; Gelcich et al. 2005). New local opportunities are urgently needed if these communities are to remain intact (Shepherd & Terry, 2004). Basic services, such as sanitation, healthcare, and education, are rare. The infant mortality rate can be so high that many mothers cannot remember the number of children they have lost, and the average number of years in school is a mere four (Sather, 1997).

Alternative income sources are desperately needed for such people, especially in instances where the conservation concerns of well-meaning Westerners disrupt local livelihoods by creating “no-take” zones and other protected jurisdictions. Alternative income schemes, such as agar agar farming, are succeeding in some areas (Nimmo, 2001). Farming of agar and other seaweed species in aquatic environments provide useful sources of foods, gels, and medicinal products. Although organizing such ventures can be difficult given that these communities do not function as a corporate group, the strength of kin networks suggests a possible starting point, with some persuasion from political leaders required. Credit associations and other cooperative schemes, deployed through women’s social and kin networks, have had considerable success in other parts of the world, notably West Africa (Nimmo, 2001). Social networks among the Bajau and similar peoples do, indeed, tend to be organized around the women (given the preference for uxorilocality and endogamy within kin clusters), and women have traditionally controlled household finances, so this sort of strategy holds promise.1

Education is one approach to try to connect the “future perspective” mismatch between conservationists from developed countries and Austronesian people such as the Bajau. However, there is a dilemma. What is the point of stressing the importance of education and more responsive policymaking if the real problem is a poorly developed cultural conception for long-term futures?

This situation presents us with two challenges, one practical and one moral. The practical challenge is to provide the Bajau with information at the appropriate level to demonstrate how certain actions–for example, “no-take” fishing zones–can help to achieve their aspirations. This intervention would need to address local economic and social concerns about the reefs, particularly their costs and benefits, and the range of options presently available.

The moral challenge is to reassess our own assumptions regarding people such as the Bajau and to acknowledge their rights and capacity for self-determination. We need to hold in greater esteem the diversity of social contributions that local people can make, and to maintain respect for a wider range of cultural values that can legitimately inform life choices about coral-reef sustainability.

A draconian approach would be to seek to alter the aspirations of people such as the Bajau in the interests of both the wider community and the wider economy. Is doing so not to treat the people who hold such values as the means rather than as the ends? Who is to say that we should seek to change their ecologically destructive practices as a way of protecting them from themselves? Should we not respect their own rights and capacities to determine their own fate? The role of indigenous communities in natural-resource management is complex and easily oversimplified, as it has been with the Bajau of the Tukangbesi archipelago. The questions “Whose aspirations? Whose achievements?” will continue to resonate in issues of sustainability and conservation. And we do not have much time. For people around the world who rely on coral reefs for their livelihoods, anthropogenic effects are degrading the local resource base at an alarming rate.

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness

– T. S. Elliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets



The author would like to thank the Earthwatch Institute and Operation Wallacea for financial support.


1 Uxorilocality refers to the practice whereby a man goes to live with his spouse in her village, often with her family, upon marriage. Endogamy is the custom of marrying within a specific social group, class, or ethnicity.

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