Moken Sea Nomads Inspire a Changing World
December 14, 2015
Mission Blue is excited to announce our new partnership with Project Moken—an international organization founded by a creative team of filmmakers and designers to inspire and generate enthusiasm about the Moken sea nomads of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago.
The Moken have lived as stateless, indigenous sea nomads in the waters off Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand for almost 4,000 years. They are the very last people who still see the ocean as a place to live their entire lives. The Moken are known for their incredible free-diving capabilities, and historically lived full-time in their traditional boats called kabang. The Moken are Earth’s last marine nomads with a culture that focuses on sustainable interaction with all marine environments, and have survived this way since the Stone Age. They treat the ocean with the respect it deserves. Today the Moken only exist in the Mergui Archipelago—a cluster of 831 islands off the west coast of Myanmar and one island in Thai territorial waters.
Through several decades of closed military regime in Myanmar/Burma, these areas have been inaccessible—like dark spots on a map. As a result, the indigenous Moken communities have largely been left undisturbed, free from the rapidly growing tourist hotspots along the Thai coastline. However, around the time of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Burmese and Thai authorities forced the Moken to live on land, exposing them to the evils of mainstream society including commercial fishing, mass tourism and a lack of official or social recognition for Moken cultural norms. Today they are detained in slum camps near military bases and installations. Their traditional society is on the verge of collapse. As their culture dwindles, traditional Moken knowledge about life in and on the sea crumbles as well; the passing of knowledge between generations has traditionally happened through practical tasks while living at sea.
Norwegian filmmaker Runar J Wiik founded Project Moken to help preserve Moken culture while gaining a deep understanding of it for his award-winning documentary No Word for Worry, produced by Hallum & Jensen AS, dept Ten Thousand Images. The Moken have no concept of property, nationality or civil rights, and therefore lack the instinct to rise up and fight for what’s theirs. What should you fight for and whom should you fight, when we are all part of the same totality? Wiik and his colleagues saw a unique opportunity to help the Moken people preserve their way of life while showing the world the inspiring example of their harmonious relationship with the sea.
Since 2007, Project Moken has conducted and documented several collaborative projects and events with Moken people in Myanmar and Thailand, Norway, and several locations in Europe and the United States with the goal of raising awareness about Moken principles. Their focus has been on putting the Moken on the world map while inspiring and encouraging sensible and sustainable uses of marine resources, as exemplified by Moken practices. Now, Project Moken aims to help the Moken get back to their traditional seafaring lifestyle through activities that fit within the context of the modern world.
One of these activities forms the basis of Project Moken’s new initiative: Moken Against Plastic. Also called Project MAP, the Moken Against Plastic project will, in cooperation with local marine business interests in Norway and Myanmar, reintroduce the sea as a workplace for the Moken by outfitting them with boats to collect marine debris. The Andaman Sea in which the Mergui Archipelago is located may be remote and inaccessible, but ocean currents have nevertheless washed countless tons of plastic trash up on the white beaches. Beneath the surface, illegal dynamite fishing has decimated many of the coral reefs.
Cleaning up above and below water is an activity that requires relatively few resources given the benefits. Local members of the Moken community will act as rangers, conducting and managing much of the cleanup work. Project MAP will get the Moken back to sea, free from their oppressors, and give them an opportunity to feed their families from a life on the waves once again.
Through the MAP initiative, Project Moken will highlight the Moken people’s role as global ambassadors. Their culture will be safeguarded, and the world can benefit from their thousand-year-old marine expertise. Parallel to this, Project Moken is also working on the next step of the project to engage Moken people actively in the development of ecotourism. Here they will be hired as free-dive and scuba-dive guides, leading tourists in activities including the restoration of local coral reefs destroyed by dynamite fishing. Marine biologists, divers, journalists, filmmakers and of course, the Moken, will forge strong ties through a mutual exchange of knowledge between Myanmar and Norway.