Badjaos: Cast Away From Mindanao To Manila
These sea people fled the
marauders of Mindanao, only to find themselves in Manila where living conditions
are just as harsh and precarious. They live along the coasts of the dead Manila
Bay, begging for alms, doing odd jobs, under constant threat from authorities
who consider them eyesores.
By ZELDA SORIANO
Badjaos, the sea people of Mindanao in southern Philippines, have a particular
story to tell quite distinct from the rest of the indigenous peoples. Unlike
their brother Filipinos who up to this time have been struggling to reclaim what
was once their ancestral land, the Badjaos are in search of another: their
Since they came to settle
along the coasts of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga in southern Philippines from
Borneo six centuries ago, the Badjaos have tried to secure a place of their own
in a communal bond with the sea. Threatened by pirates, however, many Badjao
families have since been forced to migrate northward. They reached the shores of
Manila Bay thousands of kilometers away in the 1990s.
Now the sea people are
dwelling along Roxas Boulevard. They find themselves in the side streets of
Baclaran, Pasay City or under this commercial area’s flyover which connects
Manila to Cavite farther south.
Baclaran is where you find
flea markets, small jewelry stores, pawnshops, passenger jeepneys and hordes of
Catholic devotees going to the only imposing building in this
commercial-cum-religious district – the Redemptorist Church. In its interior
areas are some small colonies of urban-poor dwellers. Now and then, especially
on a Sunday, Baclaran comes alive with a grenade explosion set off by fleeing
thieves and robbers.
Baclaran is home to
these Badjao families, or is at least their temporary shelter and source
of life. They have learned to speak Tagalog in order to live and survive in the
harsh and hard city life – eating, begging, doing odd jobs, sleeping in the
When I was introduced to
them by an NGO volunteer, I could hardly believe that the primitive
architectural geniuses of Mindanao – the tribal community of Badjaos – have
been reduced to being beggars and mendicants.
About 100 Badjao families
live in Baclaran’s streets. The men work as sidewalk vendors or pedicab
drivers, with a daily “boundary fee” of P50. Women are also in the vending
business, leaving their children to beg in the streets while playing. Vending
and driving earn for a Badjao family about P100-P200 ($2-$4) daily.
Clean water is bought from a
dealer in the nearby market for P10 a gallon. They wash up and do laundry at a
public toilet near the market.
A typical Badjao family owns
a Thermos, a kerosene stove, a small set of plates, spoons and glasses, pot and
pan, some clothes and a blanket -- all kept at night inside a wooden cart or in
the pedicab. The small pedicab also serves as the kids’ sleeping quarters.
Teenagers and adults sleep along the road on cartons or sacks. Rains would find
many families sprawled under the flyover, unmindful of the smoke belched by
buses and the noise of heavy traffic.
Amid all these, the Badjaos
run away from the almost daily “rescue operations” of the Pasay police,
officers of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and the Department of
Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), which was once headed by then Vice
President (now President) Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
An October 1999 presidential
memorandum authorizes government’s “Sagip-Kalinga Program” (Rescue-Care
Program) to direct the police, MMDA and DSWD to arrest and rescue street
dwellers including streetchildren, the mentally-ill (particularly those
popularly described as “taong-grasa” or “greasemen”), drug
addicts and all other mendicants in the metropolis. Presidential Decree 1563 or
the Anti-Mendicancy Law also authorizes arrests.
Belinda Arcilla, assistant
director of the Metro Manila office of DSWD, says the Badjaos, along with other
mendicants, are “rescued” and brought to a “processing center” in
Malibay, Pasay. At the center, the Badjaos are interviewed and taken care of by
the city’s social workers and other Sagip-Kalinga personnel. She adds that
Badjaos are given food, clean clothes and sleeping accessories.
The program encourages the
mendicants to return to their hometown and start a new life. “In the case of
the Badjaos,” Arcilla says, “we convince them about the dangers of city
life, give them transportation allowance and pocket money…including rice and
canned goods” so they can return to where they came from. In some cases, they
are sent back to Mindanao on board military helicopters.
Reaching Mindanao, she says,
the Badjao returnees are absorbed by local authorities and offered livelihood
projects such as a fishing cooperative and small handicraft business.
Returning home has become a
nightmare to some, however. Roger Guzman, a man from Luzon who is married to a
Badjao, narrates that in one helicopter trip back to Zamboanga, a group of
Badjaos were told to disembark in an unfamiliar place. They had to walk for
three days without money and food before they reached their destination.
This is why many Badjaos
insist on staying in Baclaran. But Arcilla suspects they are actually
“professional beggars” and members of a syndicate. As beggars they earn at
least P200 ($4) a day during lean months or as much as P1,000 ($20) during peak seasons,
such as in December and Baclaran fiestas.
The Badjaos themselves tell
a different story. Muin Upao, 36, the Badjaos’ informal leader in Baclaran
insist they are not beggars and that they earn a living by driving and vending. They are
forced into the streets, he says, because police and DSWD personnel would tear
down their makeshift huts along Manila Bay.
Muin’s wife says if
they’re forced to beg it is because they earn so little through their odd
jobs. With the smallest apartment room going for a minimum P1,000 per month,
they have no other place except the streets.
They distrust the
Sagip-Kalinga program. The night of August 31 last year, for instance, policemen
riding in an L-300 van suddenly pounced upon a group of Badjaos, including a
mother with an infant. As the mother fled, the infant slipped from her arms,
hitting the pavement. The baby suffered a fractured skull and died.
Three days later, on a rainy
night, policemen in a Sweepstakes ambulance van raided the area again. A
pregnant woman who was hiding under the flyover suffered a miscarriage. The
policemen came back again on September 7, this time in four ambulances and four
patrol cars from Parañaque City. That sent the Badjaos running again. Many were
arrested, their belongings confiscated. The cops fired twice to control the
When the Badjaos came to
Mindanao’s southern coasts several centuries ago, they built bamboo and nipa
huts about three meters above the water level stretching to the sea. High
structures were meant to protect them during high tide and also for safety
against hostile strangers.
For the next centuries, the
few houses on stilts became busy villages of sea people. The isolated huts were
later connected by bamboos. New structures for drying fish were added. The men
were always out in the sea for several weeks to catch fish, leaving women and
children to dry the fish to be sold later. The Badjao folk were bound to the sea
as a way of life and they only went ashore for burial rites.
Strangers broke the Badjaos’
peace in the 1900s. Armed marauders who spoke a different language took
everything the Badjaos had, including food and clothes. Ever a peaceful tribe
who believed that the bounty of nature should be shared to other people, the
Badjaos could do nothing except to submit and to give away everything they had.
Later on, they realized that the sea pirates were really ferocious when they came back to loot again and again. The Badjaos then moved from one coast to
another, to no avail.
The Badjaos’ long journey
for a safer environment began in the 1970s, at a time when the Moro secessionist
war was raging. They headed north. Reaching Manila
Bay in the 1990s, a group of Badjaos built a small village along the shores no
longer with bamboo and nipas but with wood scraps, rice sacks and cartons.
Unlike the clean waters of Mindanao, the stilts stood above the dead waters of
Manila Bay along the busy Roxas Boulevard lined by high-rise hotels, casinos,
restaurants and night clubs.
The Badjaos may have found a
place, but they also realized that “strangers” always took away their peace.
The new strangers may not be after some loot – although a few of them partook
some of the “visitors’” property - but they destroyed their homes. They
wanted the Badjaos to leave and to go back to Mindanao.
Government authorities have
an answer to the Badjaos’ – or, for that matter, all other ethnic minotiries’--
plight: the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA). The act, says David Daoas,
director of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), “is supposed
to liberate the tribal minorities from poverty and empower them so that they
could realize their right to self-determination.” The law is also supposed to
recognize the minorities’ right to “possess and develop resources within the
ancestral domains” as well as to “preserve and develop their indigenous
Daoas admits, however, that
the IPRA is far from being implemented due to certain government limitations.
Meantime, he says, the Badjaos “should own a piece of the body of water to be
considered their ancestral territory.”
Nonoy Gobrin, coordinator of
the militant Kalipunan ng mga Katutubo sa Pilipinas (KAMP, or the Federation of
Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines), holds a differing view. IPRA, he says,
creates an artificial dividing line between an “ancestral domain” and an
“ancestral land.” As a result, the act forces indigenous peoples to work for
an ancestral land based on land titling. How can they apply for titles when many
of them can’t even read and write, Gobrin asks. Besides, he adds, they are
always discriminated against during such cumbersome process.
As for the Badjaos, Gobrin
says, they have no concept of a private property. To them, property is
collective. No one owns the seas and all wealth derived from the waters is
shared with everybody.
What is viable, the KAMP
leader says, is ancestral domain which, to indigenous peoples, generally means
the total area that they could see and reach in search of life. The federation
has been engaged in such advocacy over the past decade along with other
Meanwhile, the Badjaos pray
to the spirits of their dead elders. May the wise souls of their elders lead
their present exodus back to their once simple, self-reliant and peaceful water
villages in Mindanao. #