Adaptability amongst the Bajau, Indonesia

Bajau village, Sampela, Kaledupa Island, Indonesia. Photo: Julian Clifton

Background: This case study is centered on the Bajau, the most widely dispersed maritime ethnic group within south-east Asia. The Bajau are found across Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia and, whilst linguistic and other differences are present, certain common characteristics are usually found. One of these is the high dependence on marine resources for food, fuel and building materials, as the Bajau commonly live in ‘stilt villages’ erected on wood, stone or dead coral foundations extending across the reef flat. Furthermore, fish and other marine products represent an essential component of Bajau diets and trading systems, whilst the collection of marine resources influences daily social practices and religious observances. There is, therefore, a uniquely close affinity with the sea in everyday life which permeates every Bajau community. This has been showcased in high profile media events including the BBC’s recent ‘Human Planet’ documentary. It is this affinity which led me to address aspects of Bajau life from the ‘Ecocultures’ perspective and underline the increasing scale and complexity of political, economic and environmental issues facing this society which has hitherto insulated and marginalised itself from mainstream cultures. However, change is an integral part of daily life in maritime communities such as the Bajau and they have proved remarkably resilient to past stresses, thus we should not make the error of believing that change in itself is detrimental to Bajau society. In fact, adaptability may yet prove to be the strongest asset possessed by this unique and fascinating group of people.

Julian Clifton

About the author: 

Julian Clifton gained his PhD in Geography in 1997 from the University of Liverpool and spent ten years teaching at the University of Portsmouth. In 2007, he moved to Perth and is Assistant Professor in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Western Australia. Dr. Clifton’s academic research has always focused upon south-east Asia, with specific reference to marine resource management, conservation and planning. These reflect his interests in understanding the role played by local communities in marine resource management and the implications of wider conservation policies on communities’ ability to develop sustainable livelihoods. It is often the case that the broader conservation agenda experiences many points of conflict when set against the needs and requirements of local resource users, and his interests focus upon the processes and outcomes of these conflicts.

Further Publications: 


  • Clifton, J., Majors, C. (2012). Culture, conservation and conflict: perspectives on marine protection amongst the Bajau of south-east Asia. Society and Natural Resources 25(7), 716-725.
  • Clifton, J., Etienne, M., Barnes, D.K.A., Barnes, R.S.K., Suggett, D.J., Smith, D.J. (2012). Marine conservation policy in the Seychelles: current constraints and prospects for improvement. Marine Policy 36, 823-831.
  • Clifton, J. (2011). The Wakatobi National Park – governance analysis. In: Governing Marine Protected Areas: getting the balance right – Volume 2, eds. P.J.S. Jones, W. Qiu and E.M. De Santo. Technical Report to Marine & Coastal Ecosystems Branch, UNEP, Nairobi. Published online at
  • Clifton, J. (2010). Achieving congruence between conservation and community: the Bajau ethnic group and marine management within the Wakatobi and south-east Asia. In: Marine research and conservation in the Coral Triangle: the Wakatobi National Park, eds. J. Clifton, R. Unsworth and D.J. Smith, p.171-192. Nova Science Publishers, New York.
  • Clifton, J. (2010). Marine protected area networks in the Coral Triangle: implications for conservation and communities. In: Marine research and conservation in the Coral Triangle: the Wakatobi National Park, eds. J. Clifton, R. Unsworth and D.J. Smith, p.237-250. Nova Science Publishers, New York.
  • Clifton, J., Unsworth R. and Smith, D.J., eds. (2010) Marine research and conservation in the Coral Triangle: the Wakatobi National Park. Nova Science Publishers, New York. ISBN: 978-1616684730.
  • Clifton, J. (2009). Science, funding and participation: key issues for marine protected area networks and the Coral Triangle Initiative. Environmental Conservation 36, 91-96.
  • Clifton, J. (2003). Prospects for co-management in Indonesia’s marine protected areas.Marine Policy 27, 389-395.