January 29, 2023

The Sama Dilaut of Tawi Tawi: Facing Change in a Modern World by Vago Damitio

Throughout the world, there is a huge danger that modernization and globalization will destroy irreplaceable resources in the name of progress. The oceans of the world are becoming polluted, the forests of the world are being cut, and the animals of the world are going extinct. But it is not only natural resources that are in danger of disappearing forever. Indigenous cultures of humans are also disappearing from many places on the planet. They are disappearing as a result of changes in environment, changes within the boundaries of their national governments, and from changes resulting from outside of their countries of origin. Unless drastic measures are taken, it is likely that many of these indigenous peoples and the cultures they have developed will disappear.

Deep in the southern regions of the Philippines is a province called Tawi-Tawi. Tawi-Tawi is a part of what is called the Muslim Autonomous Region, but not all of the people who live there are Muslims. The two primary groups of people living in Tawi-Tawi are the Tausug and the Sama Dilaut, also called the Badjao. While the Sama Dilaut are among those that consider themselves Muslim, they are not considered to be Muslim by the Tausug or others who live within the Muslim Autonomous Region. In truth, the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi are more closely related to the people who live on the island of Sulu, called the Sama Dilea, than to other ethnic groups of the Philippines (Nimmo 2001:1-10).

The Sama Dilaut are called many things by many people. Most often they are referred to as Badjao by the Tausug people who live near them. Westerners often refer to them as ‘sea gypsies’ the Sama Dilaut spend most of their lives living on the sea (NCCA. 2002). Historically, they were a highly mobile people that lead a nomadic lifestyle which depended upon the bounty of the ocean and the use of key resources on land in order to survive (Nimmo. 2001: 21-25).

The history of the Sama Dilaut is closely tied to the history of similar groups in Borneo . Their original origins are not known with certainty. What is known, is that for as long as they or anyone around them can remember, the Sama Dilaut of Tawi Tawi have lived on boats, married on boats, found their livelihood on boats, and died on boats. This is their way of life. The problem is that the national boundaries they live within has not been willing or able to allow the Sama Dilaut to live their lives in the way they choose. They are threatened by many different circumstances around them that encroach upon their way of life. Some of these threats to their existence are internal to their externally imposed national boundaries and some of them are external.

The threats internal to the Philippines that loom over the daily existence of the Sama Dilaut are many. Of primary importance are three: economic hardship, ethnic persecution, and a lack of recognition and representation. The first threat, that of economic hardship, affects their traditional lifestyle. Formerly, they had little need for monetary valuables and were rarely involved in cash exchange. The Sama Dilaut would harvest what they needed from the sea or unoccupied land. This has changed with the advent of fisheries laws, the setting of National boundaries, and over-fishing of waters traditionally used by the Sama Dilaut by large scale commercial fishing operations (Alamaia. 2005). As a result of these changes in resources that were once abundant have become relatively scarce, the Sama Dilaut have become dependent upon wage labor, they are exploited by capitalist fishing operations, and they are forced to compete in a world that they are not adequately prepared to compete in (Arquiza. 2004).

A second internal hardship faced by the Sama Dilaut is ethnic persecution. In a letter to the United Nations, Attorney Laisa M. Alamia recounts the tale of a nine year old boy who was the lone survivor of a massacre of eight non-Muslim Sama Dilaut fisherman by members of the dominant majority of non Sama Dilaut Muslims in the Tawi-Tawi region. The boy survived only by pretending to be dead and clinging to a piece of driftwood for an unspecified period of time (Alamia. 2005). This is not an ancient case of ethnic persecution, it occurred in January of 2005! Not only do the Sama Dilaut have less resources available, but they also risk their lives in the process of gathering them because of ethnic persecution and sectarian violence.

The third threat to the continued existence of the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi is a lack of official recognition and qualified representation. Throughout their history, the Sama Dilaut have been virtually ignored by the government of the Philippines and the governments of the world for a variety of reasons. One of the primary reasons is that because the Sama Dilaut are highly nomadic and not a sedentary people, so they are hard to account for in national censuses (Torres. 2003). A second reason is that because of their limited involvement in land based institutions, the Sama Dilaut are not a demographic that is courted by nor catered to by elected officials. As a result of these historical situations, the Sama Dilaut have been left out of the process of establishing rights, divvying up lands, and receiving recognized protection. Even if the Sama Dilaut were willing to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and leave the sea, there is no homeland waiting for them (Alamia.2005).

The external threats facing the Sama Dilaut are no less daunting than those they face from within their own nation. Not only are Sama Dilaut fishermen and families at risk from ethnic persecution, but they are also at risk from pirates in the Sulu Sea . The Sulu Sea is one of the most active zones for maritime piracy in the civilized world (Sakhuja. 2001).Modern day pirates are murderous, violent, and ruthless (Sakhuja.2001). Even though the Sama Dilaut may not have much, pirates rob them of the one thing they have and still value, their lives. Modern pirate attacks rarely leave no survivors (Sakhuja. 2001).

As mentioned above, the Sama Dilaut once were able to pull a rich existence from the sea. In addition to the waters having become unsafe for those who want to work and live on the sea, the waters are quickly becoming deadly for the very creatures that live in the sea. During three months in the Philippines in 2003, I learned from dive operators, divers, and personal observation that environmental degradation is not always obvious from the surface. It can also be hard to see amidst the colorful reef systems, exotic wildlife, and large varieties of fish that exist in limited protected areas that can be experienced by vacationing scuba divers. The truth, however, is that the Philippines is undergoing a rapid decay that is killing reefs, destroying fisheries and the fish in them, and polluting the ocean with sewage, heavy metals, and all manner of pollutants. I met representatives of large industry from the United States and other heavily industrialized nations that have moved to the Philippines in an effort to exploit the cheap labor and lax environmental laws. In addition, the government of the Philippines permits open sewers to empty into the ocean, the dumping of waste from watercraft, and dumping massive amounts of garbage in the ocean as a cheap way to dispose of waste. These issues are well known to scuba divers and often discussed in Philippine dive shops. I personally witnessed these things and saw some of the damage. All of this is destroying the nautical environment. This destruction of the resources they depend on, has driven most of the Sama Dilaut from the waters wherein they once prospered.

As if polluted environment and violent piracy were not enough to deal with, the Sama Dilaut have also lost significant portions of their way of life through a more insidious sort of externalized threat, missionaries. Christians and Muslims alike have exploited the poverty of the Sama Dilaut to remove them from their traditional animistic beliefs and practices. In some cases, food and education have been used to bribe the Sama Dilaut into becoming Christian of Muslim. In other cases, they have been attacked and coerced into changing from their chosen practices (Arquiza. 2004).

A final threat to the Sama Dilaut is tourism. Tourism is a virtual Pandora’s Box to the people that are affected by it. While on the one hand, Tourism is a way to preserve environments, safeguard traditions, and create new livelihood; on the other hand the people who utilize tourism for these purposes run risk of having their culture ‘Disneyfied’. The Sama Dilaut are in danger of becoming caricatures of themselves as they are forced to entertain rather than lead the way of life of their ancestors. For an example of this, one has only to look at a Hawaiian Luau to see how traditional culture can be comodified and changed to suit the tourists rather than the people of the culture itself.

So, one may ask, with all of these threats upon their existence, how have the Sama Dilaut adapted to the modern world that has been thrust upon them? And how have they dealt with both the national and global threats to their existence? The answer, sadly, is that the Sama Dilaut have not fared well, although, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “The rumours of their death have been greatly exaggerated.” While many sources on the internet list the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi as dead and gone, the truth is that they still exist. This is evidenced by the struggle to save them that is currently underway in both the Philippines and the United Nations. (Alamia 2005 and Arquiza 2004.)

Adaptation to the modern world however, has not been easy. Attorney Laisa M. Alamia detailed the existence of many of the Sama Dilaut in a letter to the United Nations:

From a vibrantly rich sea-nomadic lifestyle, the Sama Dilaut have

been reduced to beggars, dragging their babies and children under the sweltering heat of the sun or the merciless pouring of the rain in the streets of cities all over the Philippines . In a country where people scramble to have a share of the remaining crumbs of resources left by a cancer called corruption, the Sama Dilaut have no crumbs left at all to scramble for. (Alamia. 2005)

Hopefully, this pitiful picture does not sum up the future for the Sama Dilaut. Through letters such as this, the Sama Dilaut are taking a proactive approach to solving the problems that surround them. They have formed the Lumah Ma Dilaut Center for Living Traditions (Arquiza. 2004) The purpose of this incorporated organization is to reinvigorate, protect, and find representation for the Sama Dilaut people. They are focusing not only on making the government of the Philippines accountable for the protection of endangered people, but are also creating relationships with indigenous organizations world-wide and directing the attention of organizations such as the United Nations upon the problems that beset them.

In addition to seeking political solutions to the threats surrounding them, the Sama Dilaut are in the process of seeking economic solutions. This poses special problems as the Sama Dilaut way of life cannot be maintained in a sedentary form. In cases of piracy and ethnic violence, often women and children are left to fend for themselves with little or nothing after their primary breadwinners are killed or crippled (Alamia.2005). This, consequently, leaves them at the mercy of missionaries, labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, and risks associated with extreme poverty. These risks include but are not limited to malnutrition, disease, and exposure.

While Sama Dilaut fishermen have attempted to adapt to current economic fishing practices, because of the large overhead involved in modern commercial fishing (Arquiza. 2004), they are usually forced to work as underpaid contractual labor on the very operations which are depleting and destroying the waters they once survived upon. The Sama Dilaut are seeking ways to adapt without compromising their culture or their values but the options available to them in modern Philippine society sometimes force them to work for the same institutions that are making their lives increasingly difficult .

How then are the Sama Dilaut to survive in the modern world? Is there any possible way for them to find a way to overcome the many threats that beset them? In essence, there seems to be two choices that can be made immediately by the Philippine government and the nations of the world: the Sama Dilaut can either become an extinct people or they can become a protected people.

The simplest thing is to let the Sama Dilaut become an extinct people. In order for this to happen, nothing needs to change. The Sama Dilaut will be murdered on the oceans, they will be converted in the missions, they will be allowed to die of disease while seeking food in garbage dumps, and finally, the last of the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi will simply claim to be something else. It is simple solution, but it is disgusting. The idea of letting such a thing happen is monstrous, yet it is happening. There is, however, a way to stop it.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that the people of the world must recognize “the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights and characteristics of indigenous peoples, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies…”(UNESC. 2007). This idea lays the groundwork for what must be done to save the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi. The declaration goes on to detail the rights that all indigenous peoples must be granted. Most of the document focuses on the rights of land based indigenous peoples, but the Sama Dilaut are not excluded from these universal rights and as such the special case they represent must be considered equivalent.

Throughout the world, governments have begun to recognize that excluding indigenous people from protected reserves of land is neither suitable nor the best course of action to preserve rainforest, desert, and other at risk areas. The same is true of the ocean. Organizations such as Lumah Ma Dilaut Center for Living Traditions have suggested that marine preserves be set up that include the traditional territory of the Sama Dilaut. In effect, proposals like this would make the Sama Dilaut a protected people and also entrust them with caretaking of the ocean that they live on. Governments would offer special protection from piracy, capitalism, and ethnic violence. In addition, these areas would be free of exploitive tourism, missionaries, and the kind of environmental neglect which is plaguing not just the Philippines , but the world. It is this sort of action that will ultimately allow these proud people who once managed to pull nearly everything they needed for a healthy, fulfilling, and sustainable existence from the sea to continue doing so.


Census of Population and Housing. 2002 Tawi-Tawi Population Growth Rose More Than Threefold URL: http://www.census.gov.ph/data/pressrelease/2002/pr02138tx.html

Alamia, Laisa M. 2005. The Sea Nomads of the Philippines : On the Verge of Extinction? From United Nations Office of High Commission on Human Rights. URL: http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/docs/11/Lumah_3a.doc

Arquiza, Mucha Shim Q. 2004. Sama Dilaut—Fishers of Coins: Case of Sea Nomadism in Sulu Seas , Mindanao Philippines . From United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights. URL: http://www.unhchr.ch/minorities/statements10/AMANP3a.doc

NCCA. 2002. Sama and Sama Dilaut. Philippine National Commission on Culture and Arts.

URL: http://www.ncca.gov.ph/about_cultarts/ebook_subcont.php?subcont_Id=61

Nimmo, H. Arlo. 2001. Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press (Distributed for Ateneo de Manila University Press.)

Sakhuja, Vijay. 2001. Indian Ocean and the Safety of Sea Lines Communtcation. Strategic Analysis: A Monthly Journal of the IDSA. August 2001. Volume XXV. No. 5.

Unted Nations Economic and Social Council. 2007. UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

URL: http://www.cwis.org/drft9329.html

Wilfredo M. Torres III. 2003. A Study of the Sama Dilaut in Sulu Island : A Comparision with the Semporna Bajau Laut in The Sabah Society Newletter #71 URL: http://www.sabahsociety.com/newsletter/71.pdf


These were the comments originally added to the article:


  1. I enjoyed reading your paper! I’m also doing some research bout the Sama Dilaut of Zamboanga. Been contemplating on the who experience its hard to take it all in.Your paper made everything I witnessed and experience complete. Thank you.

    I was in Zamboanga 2 days ago and interviewed some of the Badjao in bgy Mariki. i was with photographer friend of mine Jake Verzosa. We were able to witness a storm hitting the area and houses being swallowed by the big waves. It was a difficult site to see.

    We interviewed and photographed for almost 3 days. You can really see the difference how the Badjao’s are treated in the barangay dominated by the Tausug’s. It is very evident how these people have to cope with capitalism. They struggle to try to make ends meet by diving for coins at the ship docks, beg, sell shells and corals to tourists. Its heartbreaking.

    I interviewed some prostituted Badjao kids…up to now i still get teary eyed from all the stories they shared.

    Anyways, I just want to say keep up the good work and thank you for posting this paper.


    Hi, Chris

    Laisa and myself were actually referring to the Sama Dilaut of the Zamboanga-Basilan-(and-partly Sulu) seas and not of Tawitawi. You have gone to Tawitawi and had of course discovered that the Badjao of Tawitawi whose clan network is down south to Borneo and Sandakan (instead of north-ward to the Philippine Badjao or Sama Dilaut), are relatively more affluent economically and most likely, esp. in Bongao, the Badjaos are more sedentarized, thanks to a number of housing project and education aid by the Notre Dame fathers; or otherwise are more Islamized. Sadly, they would hardly represent now the Sama Dilaut of Nimmo! The ‘fishers-of-coins’ are mostly of the Sulu-Basilan-Zamboanga ‘pehak’(clan/ancestry), and very seldom of Tawitawi. Chris, thank you for promoting the dreams of Lumah Ma Dilaut.
    Thanks to Saira, too, for bringing my attention to your article.
    Mucha Arquiza

  3. TED
    I lived in a Bajau water village– houses built on stilts over the water, so boats can be parked at home–for two years in 1980-1981. This was in Semporna, Malaysia, the very far eastern tip of Borneo, a few hours boat ride to the Philippine border. At least at that time, the national border meant little to most of them, they went back & forth all the time.

    One thing not mentioned here, at that time one of the biggest threats to Bajau fishermen was… Bajau fishermen. They discovered bomb fishing, simple homemade bombs killed hundreds of fish instantly. Unfortunately, also an acre of coral, which would take decades to regrow.
    Anyone wants to exchange info, ted dot grant at comcast dot net.

  4. RODEL
    hi chris,

    this paper of yours is a good exposition of the badjao tribe..
    i hope this will help a lot for students as a resources in studies like this..
    this would also help me in my paper…
    thank you…

    Hello everyone who has contributed to this dialog. It is very interesting to read about your concerns and studies about Sama Dilaut. I am a Swedish anthropologist travelling in the Philippines to study about Sama Dilaut and how they face the changing modern world. On monday 25th of January I am going to Davao City to meet Bajau coomunites there on Samal Island. I have also plans to go closer to the Sulu archipelago. My goal is to – if possible – stay in a Samal Bajau/Sama Dilaut community for approximately two months and study about their lifestyle and contemporary situation. Can anyone help me to come in contact with people in Tawi-Tawi or Zamboanga? Thank you! Erik Abrahamsson, erik86.abrahamsson@hotmail.com
    To chris -you have done good job on that story.

    To that nasty commentator, who said donating to beggers is like feeding stray animals –i am appalled with your snobbish and arrogany attitude. I wish you regret your words and feel some compassion towards the unfortunate.

    The Tausug call the Sama Dilaut as Luwaan or Samal. Bajau is a term used by the British Administrator in Sabah, Malaysia for both the Sama and the Sama Dilaut in registering their live births.

8 thoughts on “Badjao : Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi Sea Gypsies

  1. to know more about the [primary groups of people living in Tawi-Tawi, may I refer you to the National Commission on Culture and the Arts.

  2. to know more about the [primary groups of people living in Tawi-Tawi, may I refer you to the National Commission on Culture and the Arts.

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