Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Many of us are quick to criticise foraging when we observe the harm done to biodiversity by irresponsible foragers - but do we really understand the cultural contexts surrounding the act of foraging itself?
On Sunday, June 13, crowds of people gathered at Changi Beach, armed with tongs and buckets. On first glance, one might think these folks were there for a nice sunset clean-up on the beach, but this is far from the truth - they were digging up marine wildlife like crabs, eels and sea cucumbers from the shore, stuffing them into pails and buckets to bring back home.
This incident has sparked outrage among local wildlife enthusiasts, who have expressed concern over the mass harvesting and mistreatment of Singapore’s marine biodiversity. They are particularly worried by people’s lack of understanding of how these sea creatures behave.
In an interview with Channel News Asia (CNA), Dennis Chan, founder of The Untamed Paths, mentioned that most people “don’t know that putting them into buckets with other creatures can cause stress or harm to them. If you’re going to stuff them into a pail, the oxygen level depletes rapidly and might cause them to die”.
Many online users have echoed Chan’s concerns on platforms like Facebook and Reddit, agreeing that such mishandling of sea creatures exacerbates the dangerous impacts of human activity on Singapore’s delicate coastal ecosystems, which are already highly endangered.
In response to the public uproar, NParks has promised to intensify their efforts to educate the public about marine life in intertidal areas. “More signage will be put up, and we will step up patrols by our staff and stakeholders including nature groups and other volunteers,” says Ryan Lee, the board’s Group Director of the National Biodiversity Centre.
With all the heated discussion sparked by this mass foraging event, one might expect to see stricter regulations on Singapore’s anti-foraging laws in the near future. While this may seem like the obvious solution to protect marine wildlife from irresponsible foragers, this would mean that indigenous traditions such as clam foraging will not be able to continue. Foraging for clams and shellfish is actually a tradition and source of sustenance for coastal dwellers like the indigenous communities of Pulau Ubin. The banning of such activities on Singapore’s shores would threaten to obliterate these indigenous cultural practices, which have already been heavily marginalised due to the country’s rapid urbanisation in the last century.
In his Instagram post, Syazwan Majid, a descendent of native Pulau Ubin islanders, provides a perspective on the issue that many have failed to consider: “Clam foraging was a bonding session for the villagers growing up on Pulau Ubin, including my mom. They would head out to the coasts and creeks during low-tide to search for these intertidal marine creatures and other shellfish - bearing the hot scorching sun, shin deep in mud and weighed with fatigue - just to make sure we have a meal on our table at the end of the day.”
Should marine foraging be completely banned in Singapore, the younger generations would never know the communal experiences of harvesting and cooking shellfish together, and the hard work that goes into putting food on the table.
In our well-meaning acts of preserving our local marine biodiversity, we might unintentionally cause a permanent loss of indigenous culture and knowledge. However, this does not mean that one must inevitably be sacrificed for the preservation of the other. Sustainability is not merely environmental - it encompasses the protection of social and cultural diversity too. If biodiversity is the foundation of a healthy ecosystem, sociocultural diversity is what makes society flourish. Protecting and nurturing our cultures, in all their heterogenous forms, are most definitely crucial aspects of sustainability.
In fact, the protection of indigenous knowledge and practices is often directly correlated to the protection of biodiversity. Because indigenous peoples depend heavily on local environments for the provision of resources, they possess knowledge of how to utilise them sustainably, and in some cases, even enhance their growth. This knowledge is often developed through a trial and error process over a long historical time period, and if it is not preserved well, its loss would be deep and irreversible.
With all this in mind - what are we to do?
First and foremost: get educated! We must understand that foraging is not inherently bad; it is how we forage that determines whether or not we will harm our ecosystems. Foraging with a good understanding of marine wildlife behaviour will prevent sea creatures from being mishandled and unnecessarily killed. When done responsibly, foraging could in turn become a powerful tool for engaging local communities, educating them about marine wildlife, and conserving these precious ecosystems. Additionally, understanding the cultural contexts of the act of foraging itself would allow us to better appreciate the traditions and livelihoods of our past, and make them a lived experience in the present.
And more importantly: exercise moderation. The indigenous peoples had foraged sustainably for decades because they foraged in moderation. Nature is resilient; what has been lost temporarily will find a way to flourish once again, as long as the ecosystem is not pushed beyond its tipping point. The same principle applies to the way we should respond to this situation: a balanced approach to protecting both our marine wildlife and our indigenous cultures is necessary, before one of them tips over its threshold - and is lost forever.
With everything that has happened, it can be daunting to take the first step towards making a change. But fear not - here are some online resources, platforms and nature programmes that can help you learn more about marine biodiversity and indigenous cultures. Education is already half the battle won!
Learn more about marine wildlife at Wild Singapore, a highly informative nature blog run by Ria Tan. But of course, what better way to learn about marine biodiversity than to see them for yourself? Head down to our shores with The Untamed Paths or Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum for guided intertidal walks! And do check out the following Instagram accounts to get to know about individual marine creatures - and enjoy some beautiful marine wildlife photography too!
Finally, check out Roots.sg’s Pulau Ubin Cultural Mapping Project to learn more about the culture of Pulau Ubin and its indigenous communities. And don’t forget to stop by Syazwan’s Instagram page (@wansubinjournal), where he shares lesser known stories about Ubin’s unique heritage through the perspectives of its native people!