Rhythms of Resistance on Timorese Saltscapes

Small-scale salt operations. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Gillian Bogart, University of California, Santa Cruz §

Large-scale salt operations. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: While salt is becoming an artisanal good in places across the globe, state intervention in Indonesia has meant a sharp turn towards industrialization.  Small holders produce enough salt for people’s consumption needs, but the demand of Indonesia’s growing industrial sector seems insatiable. Industry begets industry as newly articulated categories like “national salt” and “people’s salt” begin to roll off tongues with ease. “National salt” can be understood as a product of state power and capital coming together. And the salt self-sufficiency initiative as a dramatic performance of the state to assert the reach of its power. Indonesia’s central government has turned its gaze to the “outer island” of Timor, opening a national saltworks in Kupang Bay last year. Plans for expansion into the outer islands are designed in highly securitized, smoky offices of Jakarta skyscrapers, where aerial photographs show Kupang Bay’s intertidal zone as lahan tidur, or sleeping, unproductive land. But those who trek across the slippery mudflat formed by the bay’s rising and receding tides recognize it as a vibrant, historical landscape. This saltscape is populated and protected by ancestors; crocodiles sunbathing with jaws open, awaiting offerings from local residents; farmers and fishers of various clans; mangrove, crab, shrimp, and fish populations. This paper argues that as government-led industrialization advances, the lives of these populations and the fate of Kupang Bay are at stake.


My overarching research project examines heterogenous salt worlds in Indonesia and the human-non-human lifeways they entangle. I study the impacts of a now-unfolding economic nationalist salt self-sufficiency initiative and the industrialization efforts it is both driven by and drives. Salt ecologies and property regimes have turned out to be centrally important to understanding the kinds of transformations taking place at my field sites and within the communities I study with.

My paper, Rhythms of Resistance on Timorese Saltscapes deals directly with the main themes of my research project while attempting to engage a non-secular Anthropocene and enchant the political economy. Part ethnography and part cautionary tale, it takes place in Kupang Bay, Timor where the ecosystem is rich with mangroves, fish, shrimp, crabs, birds, bivalves, and crocodiles. These communities, as well as fishing and farming communities have thrived here for many generations. Yet, in recent times they have come under threat by what I call, playing off an Indonesian colloquialism, buaya darat or land crocodiles. The category of buaya darat includes the well-networked, smart-talking investors who made their way to Kupang Bay since it became a target development region for Indonesia’s national salt self-sufficiency initiative. They seek to transform the richness of Kupang Bay’s ecosystem into commodities for profit and personal gain. I trace these land crocodiles back to colonial and New Order regimes, as both continue to express significant social force today in Reformasi Indonesia. Buaya darat’s pursuit is relentless and threatens to obliterate other lifeways and forms in the process–including buaya bai, which is both an ancestral and estuarine crocodile at once.

Small-scale salt operations. Photo by author.

This is essential to an argument I advance in my paper, which is that ancestral beings need not be considered as separate entities from those we share worldly space with in day-to-day life. Estuarine Crocodylus porosus is one and the same as the ancestral crocodile that my interlocutors refer to as bai, meaning grandparent. My interlocutors taught me that ancestral and worldly beings with biological names exist as one. I was fortunate to have Marisol de la Cadena’s scholarship to aid me in making analytical sense and parsing the complexity of such modes of being.

Another piece of my argument is that both kinds of crocodiles, the profit-driven buaya darat and ancestral-estuarine buaya bai, thrive through relationships based on reciprocity. Scholars of Melanesia and Eastern Indonesia, like Marilyn Strathern and James Fox, detail the importance of gift exchange and outline the critical role of reciprocity in social life. I include as actors in this exchange society buaya bai, famously vengeful ancestral-estuarine crocodiles, and buaya darat, land crocodiles known for their violent dispossession tactics and causing destruction. Engagement with either kind of crocodile involves risk-taking, speculation, and the dangers that accompany unfulfilled promises and gifts unreciprocated. Anna Tsing was especially helpful to think with here, as I reconfigured a way to understand the operation of capital and its expansion that goes beyond a secular or purely materialist interpretation.

Small-scale salt operations. Photo by author.

While both crocodile relationships are based upon a cycle of exchange and a system of debts and favors, they operate at different temporal rhythms. They also move towards different outcomes. Relationships with buaya bai have a long temporal arc that seeks balance and ongoingness; exemplified by the alliance forged between Aitua villagers and buaya bai to prevent the conversion of smallholder salt flats and estuarine habitats into industrial salt operations. Relationships with investment-oriented buaya darat, while also involving reciprocity, threaten ongoingness and prioritize, as capitalism does, the advancement of one party at the peril of others. In this case the others include ancestral-estuarine crocodiles, mangroves and their dependent species, and fisher-farmer communities. Ultimately, I argue, if profit-hungry land crocodiles continue as they plan to, the fate of Kupang Bay itself is at stake.


Gillian Bogart is a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She studies coastal interactions in Indonesia with attention to the social and ecological impacts of development.


This post is part of our series, 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.