efe-epaNoel Caballero Ma Kyone Galet, Myanmar

A flotilla of boats tied together sails across the turquoise waters of the Mergui archipelago in southern Myanmar, a transit point for the country's last surviving nomadic ethnicity, the Moken, whose ancestral traditions have become endangered by economic and political development.

The six wooden boats serve as a home to a family of 10-12 people, with mats to sleep on the deck, a rudimentary kitchen and a place to store tools for fishing, the main source of subsistence for this largely isolated community.

Their contacts with the outside world come through rare exchanges of fish and shells for consumer goods such as packaged noodles, rice and soap, with passing boats.

"The Moken are shy people who rarely interact with other groups," Giorgi, a Myanmar guide leading an expedition to Mergui, told EFE.

After returning from one such meeting with a tourist vessel, the group quickly retreats to one of the hundreds of quiet, isolated bays of Mergui, an archipelago made up of some 800 islets, most of which are uninhabited.

The Moken, also known as sea-nomads, live in the Andaman Sea between Myanmar and Thailand, rarely taking to land except to find shelter during the monsoon season.

For centuries, the Moken have perfected the art of underwater fishing by freediving with a harpoon, and are able to stay underwater for several minutes at a time.

Over the last decade, the number of these nomadic people following their traditional ways of life has significantly declined due to overfishing by large fishing boats and plans by authorities to relocate the Moken to permanent settlements.

Of the 12,000 Moken living in the Mergui waters a decade ago, less than 2,000 remain, according to data from Myanmar's ethnic affairs ministry.

Many of these seasoned fishermen have been recruited by the same fishing boats whose weighted bottom-set nets and use of explosives have destroyed their traditional habitat and are threatening their way of life.

"The catch was increasingly declining to the point when one could not sustain a family. So we decided to settle down permanently and I joined a fishing boat," Shar, a community leader at the Ma Kyone Galet village of sea gypsies, told EFE.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the military junta that ruled Myanmar drew up a plan to try and get the Moken to settle down in specially-built settlements around the archipelago.

It also banned them from fishing in protected areas or cutting down large trees that they used to build their traditional boats or "kaban".

Despite being recognized by the 1982 citizenship law, Myanmar authorities have failed to provide these people with identity documents due to a lack of birth certificates, as the women give birth at sea.

Their stateless condition leaves the Moken vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation and abuse of their rights, as well as making them easy prey for human traffickers.

Last year, Ethnic Affairs Minister Naing That Lwin called for legal and economic measures to help preserve the Moken's traditions, which are in danger of disappearing completely.