'The Human Tide' is an ongoing project that focuses on local populations facing the greatest impacts of climate change.
The first part of the project, titled 'TRADITIONS', is a story of two cultures set to shift in the near future with a changing climate. While the Bajau sea nomads of Southeast Asia and Fulani herders of the Sahel face very different impacts, they are united by many of the same realities. These age-old traditions have begun to shape with a modern, fragile world.
Their Greatest Challenge
While the Fulani now face their greatest challenge to date with the ongoing impacts of a changing climate; they, like many others in the Sahel region have already adapted to the most extreme living conditions in the world. This is not to say that they are more or less vulnerable, but have shown that through periods of great adversity that it is possible to overcome hardships through nothing but mobility and ingenuity to their methods. It has now been almost three decades of prolonged drought and inconsistent rain, versus a lifetime of hope and resilience. Centuries ago, the Fulani, a mix of West African, North African and Arabian blood, unsettled the dust of the Sahel with only their footsteps; moving with the seasons towards new beginnings. In this modern world of borders and boundaries, it is this same tradition that may ultimately be their only method for survival, at the onset of even greater adversity.
I close this narrative with a final thought; one which has only come after departing a continent that always teaches me the true value of strength and resilience. We are born into the lives we are given, some with a plethora of opportunities to change its course, and others with less so. It is the reality of our existence, unless there is greater intervention to support us, particularly those trapped in waves of oppressive or complex poverty cycles. We are either born into boundaries, or born into freedoms. We opt to maneuver, to embrace or to challenge these. Eventually the outcome of our actions dictates who we are as individuals, communities, cultures and societies throughout time itself.
While many still debate over what exactly climate change will mean for the Sahel region; the slow onset effects are being felt by almost all that occupy its barren landscape. Cash crops have disappeared completely from the market in many West African nations, and the last 30 years has also seen dramatic fluctuations in the production, availability and cost of staple crops like cereal and rice which rural people rely on. While some studies expect conditions to become wetter and more prone to flooding, others suggest the region will become drier due to increased evaporation from the warming of the atmosphere. In their scenario, it is this unpredictability of rainfall that will have major implications for communities like the Fulani, whose very migration patterns over time have been set on calendars of wet and dry seasons. As poignantly put by Moussa Ba, a NGO officer dedicating his life to regenerating the Sahel’s forests; ‘People are moving further than they ever have before to search for water and new pastures. They are moving across borders and territories they never used to go, encroaching on other peoples land. It is certainly no surprise to me that the conflict in Mali is unresolved. It is a result of everybody searching for a resource that there is less and less of as time goes on.
A quiet moment with Bintu and Maria in Togel Kours camp.
Hassan’s father, Badjari Sankari, was the first to settle at Togel Kours. He was getting older, and growing tired of packing up the camp and leaving in search of grass for his livestock. Every two months, his entire family would pack everything onto carts and walk hours with their sheep, goats and cattle along dirt roads; from Hayré in the rainy season, to bushland over the border of Burkina Faso, and back to the outskirts of Djénné in the dry season. His generation were key to challenging the historic Fulani tradition of being nomadic, by settling in permanent camps. Togel Kours was a name that meant ‘when the rain comes, it stays’, as the slight depression in the landscape meant pools of water stayed for months after the rainy season. Two generations later, there is no water where it should be. The soil is dry and barren; a legacy of extended periods of drought, over-farming and deforestation. Herders walk further to find new grass. Farmers no longer farm in areas they once could. New challenges have arisen in the last fifty years that Badjari could never have anticipated when he first settled at Togel Kours. Life in the Sahel is on the cusp of yet another cycle, where the old tradition of being nomadic may be the only option for future generations to adapt.
After the drought in 1985, our area became dry and barren. Many people left Togel Kours because there was no food to keep the cows alive, and they eventually starved as well. We never used to worry because the rain came normally, the grass grew tall and the cows always had enough food. Now, in the rainy season we can have one or two weeks with no rain. Life is difficult for us, and every year it is dependent on luck... We could never leave, but I know if the situation gets worse that our children must go. There won't be a choice.' Mahamadou Sankari, herder and village elder, Togel Kours.
The heat of the Sahel is relentless by midday. Shadows are cast beneath scattered acacia trees, and twisters of dust rise and fall on the horizon line. The Fulani never stop, even in the hottest part of the day. Life is a continuous cycle, focused on keeping the livestock healthy and always having water at the camp. Sheep and goats are herded to pastures kilometres away, under the watchful eyes of children. Young men in the village make mud bricks to build a local mosque; their feet, hands and faces encased in dry mud. Young women at the groundwell take shifts taking the water home and coming back to deliver water for the bricks. Some are shy, and scurry back, whilst others joke and laugh at the mess of mud and straw everywhere. It is a beautiful moment watching the exchange. Men's turbans and women's dresses, all different shapes and patterns mixing together. A sea of colour in an otherwise barren and desolate landscape.
From the age of eight, a Fulani girl will master the art of balancing a ten litre casket of water on top of her head, having carried it from the nearest ground well. By the age of twelve, she will help tend for the family's flock of sheep, herding them more than three kilometres to find new pastures during the hottest part of the day. Her eyes won't wander for a single second, cautious not to lose any sheep. By fifteen, she will travel with her mother to town on market day, balancing a calabash full of sour milk to sell on her head. Her watchful eyes will learn the way of trade, and she will quickly pick up the languages of many different ethnic groups. By eighteen, she knows to use the surplus milk from the rainy season to make soap, butter and yoghurt. She is resourceful; keeping a small portion of leftover butter to be used for her hair. When she finally reaches womanhood, she will undergo a ritual to have her face or lips tattooed, signifying the strength and stoicism of being born a Fulani woman.
A Fulani Farmer and His Wife
A Fulani farmer, Sabbu Cisse and his wife Daddu Chokari from Fokolari village. The scarce rainfall in the Sahel means that farming households live off a single cultivation per year. They rely on consistent and reliable rainfall to adequately water the farms; a feat which has not happened for two or three years now. One bag of rice is given to the landowner, three are sold and the remaining portion must be rationed to sustain the family for nine months until the rain returns again. During the dry season, the family rely on Daddu's small home garden for additional income. Sabbu helped to dig her a groundwell at the centre of the garden, and she grows mint, chillies, papaya and mango to sell at the Monday market. Their turmoil and years of hard physical labour is told in the lines of Sabbu and Daddu's worn hands.
The Wait for Rain
Imagine the wait. Every single day for nine months, anticipating the sky to erupt with rain. Every spare moment is spent looking up; watching the formation of clouds and hoping for an anomaly. Praying it is not too late, praying it is not too little. The end of the dry season brings stifling temperatures and endless dust clouds which carry whispers through every mud hut, every thatch roof, every marketplace. The wait is the one thing that unites every ethnic group of the Sahel. Water is on everyone’s mind, for it is the most integral part of their survival.
On Sunday's, the dusty red roads to Djenne are trampled by donkeys or horses drawing wooden carts, turban-clad cowboys on motorbikes with their prized sheep tied to the back, and colourfully dressed women arriving on foot, balancing bowls full of sour milk on their head. They come from every direction; nomads, farmers, merchants and buyers, for the infamous Monday market in Djenne. For the Fulani, it is their main means of income and trade for the week; selling a sheep that's been fattened for a good profit, or begrudgingly selling one of their animals for food or goods they've needed for some time. By eleven in the morning, the sun sits high above the mud city, casting few shadows for people to huddle underneath. The livestock market is a blur of colourful shapes and unsettled dust; men negotiating prices, weighing sheep and firmly patting donkeys. The Fulani are stoic and proud, playing an extraordinary poker face, so that no single bystander will know if they are walking away from the Monday market satisfied or underwhelmed.
A sight of the Sahel; the largest mud mosque in the world in Djenne, Central Mali. The mosque is the starting point of Djenne's massive Monday market.
If the Cows Die
The Fulani live entirely from the land and the animals they rear on it. As one Fulani proverb echoes; if the cows die, so too will the Fulani people. While they are known to be the largest nomadic pastoralists in the world; many over time have shifted their livelihoods and settled in semi-permanent village camps as farmers and merchants. Throughout time, they have adapted to significant change in the Sahel region because of their flexibility, mobility and preparedness in times of uncertainty. However, as temperatures continue to soar and the rains of the wet season become increasingly erratic, it poses a great risk to the productivity and single livelihood activity that the Fulani have practiced for generations.
The Sahel region is one of the harshest places to live on Earth. This narrow strip of land stretches across fourteen countries in Africa, where it's communities have adapted to survive in extreme conditions. Temperatures soar well above 40°C and the sky is a constant haze from unsettled dust. There is rainfall for only a month or two per year, but in some areas and in some years, there can be none whatsoever. Over the last half a century, the Sahel has faced the most severe and long enduring drought events than anywhere else on the planet. Now, the region faces its greatest challenge to date; increasing desertification, whereby the Sahara desert is advancing in many cases by more than 10km per year. For the pastoral, agricultural and nomadic communities of the Sahel, the risk of resource scarcity is one which also brings a likelihood of severe famine, instability, conflict and forced migration.
More than two million years ago, our footsteps told stories of early migrations and the expansions of our race in mud and stone. For the thousands of years that followed, we crossed corridors of forest, bush, savannah and desert to reach the new worlds. We built tools to survive, to carry us further, and to remind us of our legacy in different corners of this planet. Our skin diluted; features changed, but our blood and bone forever stayed the same. Out of Africa, the world as we know was born. No matter how far, or how long ago we left it, a part of Africa stays within our soul forever. This part of our soul serves as a reminder to the everlasting strength, courage and resilience of the human spirit since the very beginning.
II. The Coral Triangle sits at a complex crossroads for a rapidly growing coastal population. While it's bountiful seas and diverse reef ecosystems have helped facilitate a steady economic growth and international trade for developing economies, many areas have become heavily depleted by unsustainable fishing practices, increasing consumption and growing impacts of climate change. Now, this volatile region sustains the lives and livelihoods of more than 150 million people. Despite recognising its resources are rapidly dwindling, populations like the Bajau are built into a tradition whereby most are unable to conceive to live a life outside of fishing. Most are not empowered, nor do they have options to change their livelihoods. It is imperative we recognise the plight of these communities; limited to act as agents of change, in order to see where intervention for adaptation is needed.
I. In just over a month spent on various islands in the Coral Triangle, I have witnessed a narrative unfold regarding the tribulations that the Bajau and their age-old culture are facing at present. The Bajau are one of many subsistence communities that face the greatest impact of a changing climate. Erratic weather patterns, increased storm frequency, warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification have already, and will continue to impact the primary resource which these coastal communities rely on.
Yet, the context of the Bajau make their situation more complex, as most are trapped in a vicious cycle of deeply ingrained political, economic and social vulnerability. Whether comparing the Bajau in Malaysia or Indonesia, the same underpinning principle applies: that their culture, knowledge and insight of the world is neither recognised or included in a modern, developing world. This segregation and ‘autonomy’ has meant that the majority are forced to live the life they’ve been given as they have for generations; a life at sea. The Bajau are not agents of change. They cannot diversify their livelihoods, nor do they have the assets to alleviate themselves from an already complicated poverty cycle. At the onset of even greater adversity in the coming years, they are presented with limited options to adapt or overcome the fragility of this world.
The population of Pulau Tangkian is no more than 150 people, however, every household in the small village relies either partly or wholly on fishing. Some make almost no income, as fishing simply sustains their survival. The village is thought to have been settled a little more than thirteen years ago, when the Bajau people left nearby villages on Katupat island due to the dwindling fish stocks and over competition amongst fishermen. Now, Tangkian faces a similar predicament just over a decade after settling; whereby unsustainable fishing practices, a heavy reliance from the local population and the growing impacts of climate change threatens the need for migration yet again.
In order for vulnerable communities to increase their resilience to a changing climate, opportunities must exist for households to diversify their income or livelihood activities throughout different times of the year. When these opportunities don't exist, communities are forced to look elsewhere, inevitably mobilising the need for migration in order to survive.
To compensate for growing global markets in the live fish trade, the traditional fishing methods of the Bajau have changed significantly over time. The demand for live fish in Hong Kong and Mainland China has seen the widespread use of potassium cyanide through many parts of the Coral Triangle, where fishermen use bottles to stun species with milky, poisonous plumes underwater. Potassium is also used as nitrate in underwater explosives; whereby blast bombs are lobbed into shallow reef and explode, causing fish bladders to rupture and fish to float to the surface. Despite being heavily regulated and prohibited, these practices continue to decimate the reef and its stocks have suffered significantly since they began. Yet, in a market-driven world it is a means for local fishermen, particularly those of the Bajau Laut, to alleviate households from poverty. A vicious cycle with limited foresight.
'We've seen a lot of damage to the outer reef. In many sections it's dying because of the sun, and being killed by the cyanide and fish bombing... In the last few years, the fish we catch at sea have gotten smaller and smaller, because there's nothing for them to eat. We moved from Pulau Manam Pilik because there was less fish there. Now, our situation just depends on luck.'
A life Locked in Fishing
A life locked in fishing is precarious and varies day by day. During the monsoon, the Bajau Laut can go more than a week where the men cannot fish at sea, or women and children are unable to forage the shallows at low tide. 'It is not like it used to be ten years ago. Now, we have more frequent days of high winds, heavy rain, and some days that are too hot so we cannot go fishing. The wind is so strong it destroys our home. There's no money or food if we do not work, so we need to save and always be ready for these times', Aling, fishermen and cargo driver.
More than a hundred years ago, Adriani, a Dutch linguist and missionary sailed the seas of Sulawesi in order to map the whereabouts of the Bajau people. He noted that despite their nomadic nature of moving with the seasons or tides, and never being 'fixed' to a certain place, that the Bajau 'move sometimes to one place, and sometimes to another, but they have never entirely abandoned the Togean Islands'. In the century that followed, multiple governments sought to alter this nomadic freedom, forcing and encouraging Bajau settlements throughout various islands in Indonesia in exchange for education, homes or trade. Yet, little force was needed for the Bajau to settle in the Togean's, as in many ways they already had; in search of a home with bountiful seas, pristine reefs and isolation from the rest of the world.
Without access to education, the children of the Bajau Laut are taught the skills of survival at an early age. Young men go out to sea with their fathers, while young women wander the shores to forage. The last question I ask all parents during interviews is what they hope for their children's futures. Most, if not all, talk about the notion of 'luck' and how it may carry their children out of a life they were bound to. 'Luck' was the prospect that one day their children could to go to school and find work on the mainland. Many take for granted this right to education and just how much it shapes our pathway in life.
The Waiting Game
The waiting game on Pulau Salaka.
The Coral Triangle
The Coral Triangle sits at a complex crossroads for a rapidly growing coastal population. While it's bountiful seas and diverse reef ecosystems have helped facilitate a steady economic growth and international trade for developing economies, many areas have become heavily depleted by unsustainable fishing practices, increasing consumption and growing impacts of climate change. Now, this volatile region sustains the lives and livelihoods of more than 150 million people. Despite recognising its resources are rapidly dwindling, populations like the Bajau are built into a tradition whereby most are unable to conceive to live a life outside of fishing. Most are not empowered, nor do they have options to change their livelihoods. It is imperative we recognise the plight of these communities; limited to act as agents of change, in order to see where intervention for adaptation is needed
The Children of Bajau Laut
Whenever I travel, I find myself fascinated by the innocence of interactions with children; trying to grasp the idea that we are each in some ways, bound to the life we are born into. We don't know it any different, nor do we know what's better, what's worse or simply what components of our lives are meant to be. The Bajau Laut are entirely stateless; sea nomads caught in a political dilemma where government institutions in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines debate their origin, denying their rights to education, health care and alternative economic opportunities. In turn, it has sealed their fate into an endless cycle which relies entirely on the ocean. It is on this wide expanse of water that many fates are sealed.
Tides pass through the stilted homes, deciding whether passage will be on foot or in small carved boats. Some homes are no bigger than 5x5, etched together with corroded metal and stitched palm leaves. The creaking platforms contain every single possession of the Bajau Laut community; serving as the bathroom, laundry, kitchen and bedroom for families often greater than six people. There is no electricity, and yet at least one household is always playing Bajau songs on a muffled, battery-operated speaker which echoes through the floating village. I often find myself on the jetty at different hours of the day, staring out on to the village and simply being entranced at a way of life I've never witnessed before.
Perfectly In Sync
The very first time you lay eyes on the Bajau Laut, you are so clearly able to see their connection to the ocean. It is as if the water in their bodies align in the same rhythm; perfectly in sync with every wave, tide or fracture.