The 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.


The 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 ancestral seas.

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 streets.

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.

Running Away

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.

Not Beggars

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 commotion.

Cast Away

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.

Ancestral Domain

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 culture.”

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 indigenous groups.

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. #