What Happens When a Nomad Can Wander No More?

Having just returned from France, where I travelled the Canal du Nivernais by barge—arriving home heavier than when I left, thanks to the nightly four-course meals—the waterways and sea are on my mind.

[A young seafaring nomad. Photograph by Bangkok-based freelance photographer Giorgio Taraschi, via The Guardian]

I arrived home to find a note from a friend about the Moken nomads, a tribe of seafarers from Burma and Thailand. These are not modern nomads—their migrant roots go back up to 4,000 years, according to a story in The Guardian. As borders shut for many people, they open up for others, such as those of us with the privilege of money and dual citizenship and multiple passports (in Jay-Z’s words, “Got five passports / I ain’t never going to jail.”) If the modern nomad is the individual with the luxury to work across borders, to move three, four, five times in as many years, to form communities across continents, the traditional nomad is seeing their world get smaller. The Moken, for instance, are being forced ashore by falling fish stocks (thanks to overfishing by international companies and the 2004 tsunami).

[A Moken nomad works the aisles at a 7-Eleven in Thailand. Photograph by Bangkok-based freelance photographer Giorgio Taraschi, via The Guardian

The challenges they face illustrate the complexity of nomadism. In 2012, you must be from somewhere, you must claim (and prove) citizenship.

A recent push by various charities and the Thai government to issue Thai identity cards has granted some access to state-run schools and health care, but claiming full-blown citizenship – by proving that they, or a parent, were born in Thailand – is a complex issue for a nomadic people who hardly use numbers and mark the date according to the tide, not the Gregorian calendar.

The result is a dislocation that eerily matches that of modern nomads, but with different results. Social problems, such as substance abuse, are spreading; luxury resorts squeeze Moken into housing situations that sound very much like the reserve structure of Canada’s First Nations (with similar problems); and cultural amnesia seems inevitable. What happens when a nomadic group can no longer migrate? “Moken are supposed to travel, to be nomadic, to travel freely. So if we cannot travel freely, we are dead, culturally at least,” a community leader named Hong told The Guardian. “Moken children use mobile phones, study English and choose to be educated. We’ve abandoned our old traditions so much we risk losing them entirely.”

+ See “Living With the Moken,” The Guardian's photo gallery with Taraschi's pictures of Moken nomads.

+ As some nomads are being forced out of the sea, others are flocking there. Is “seasteading”–ocean-based cities–the final frontier in urban design? See this piece in The Economist for more.