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Friday, December 19, 2014

An epic task of making the oceans sweeter: Salt farmers in Jeneponto, Indonesia


I have always had a sweet relationship with salt. Blame it on culture. Both my parents had migrated to India from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, where people like their food a little saltier than rest of humanity. We, East Bengalis, can live happily ever after eating just Panta Bhat[1] with salt every day. At home, my mom’s culinary advice has always been, “If you ever forget whether you have already put salt in the dish, remember this; to err on the side of caution, just add in more salt.” My father used to eat a handful of salt with every meal before his heart protested at the age of eighty-two. At that time, the words that shook our family most was, “Doctor asked him to eat less salt.” And when my sister, a doctor herself, reminds him of this, he will always say, “How can you forget Gandhi?  How can you forget Dandi March[2]? How can you forget what we suffered for a fistful of salt?” And every time the little salt pot was removed from our living room because of aesthetic reasons, somehow, it always found its way back. So when I first saw the wide expanse of salt farms on the way from Makassar to Jenepento in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, I could barely contain my thrill.

I saw acres upon acres of simmering white fields, divided into squares, with tiny mounds of salt heaped along their edges. Scrawny men moved around, carrying loads of salts in baskets jumping from the two ends of the beams over their shoulders, springing up and down in light footsteps, looking like mysterious musical instruments. Other men followed their own rhythm, scratching the salt gently from the ponds with wide scrapers, creating those small white hills. Rickety windmills talked to them like cranky old women. I wanted to jump out into the fields. I wanted to talk to these salt farmers. But as I had a meeting to attend, I promised to myself, “I will have you come back here soon.”

Back in my hotel, I can’t get Jeneponto out of my mind.  I think of the episode of Samudra Manthan from Hindu mythology where the demons and gods collaborated to churn the ocean and extract the elixir of life. Statues and murals commemorating this episode can be seen all over Indonesia, a country with a Hindu past.  If Samudra Manthan was inspired by real life, as most myths are, wasn’t it based on these churners of the sea, the salt farmers?

The next day, I gang up with two local travel bloggers from Makassar, Daeng Ipul and Ahmad. But unfortunately, today is the beginning of the rainy season that also marks the end of the salt-farming period in Jeneponto. The rains toned down their intensity as we went farther away from Makassar. Jeneponto after all, is unusually arid, sandwiched between regions receiving heavy rainfall.

It is one of the poorest regions of Indonesia. Given its arid climate, the largely agricultural population barely manages to scrape through by cultivating corn and extracting salt. Emigration from Jeneponto is therefore rampant, to Makassar and other parts of Sulawesi. And Jeneponto is the land of horses. The first sign that you have reached Jeneponto is the sight of chopped horse heads in street-side butcher shops, still smiling an eerie smile, standing firm next to big chunks of its own meat on the table. Men in straw hats ride leisurely past these stalls on horseback. 

As the rains have begun, the salt farmers are relaxing today. We meet a group of people idling at a thatched shed in front of their house. As is always possible in Indonesia, we crash into the conversation and make ourselves comfortable in the shed.

They are a family of salt farmers. Daeng Situju, the man of the house, is seated with his wife, his mother and his baby girl. Situju is wearing a cap, a well-bleached blue PVC jacket and denim shorts. He is lean but his face is a little bloated, sporting a faint Hitlerish moustache. Daeng Situju has just turned fifty. His wife looks much younger. She has curly hair and is wearing a floral gown. Everyone in the family have healthy copper skin.

Daeng Situju spreads out his life as a salt-farmer to us, “You see these bags of salt. They are fifty kilos each. Each bag can fetch ten to fifteen thousand rupiah[3]. If your field is farther away from the road, your salt fetches much less. But the price is never stable. This year it has gone as low as seven thousand rupiah. Only once, we had a good time. In 1999, when Habibie[4] had briefly banned salt imports to Indonesia, I could get a hundred thousand for fifty kg.”

Indonesia, despite spanning over 17,000 islands and a vast expanse of oceans, imports almost half its consumption of salt. Salt for industrial use constitutes the bulk of the imports as local production is deemed to be of poorer quality.

A middle-aged lady called Daeng Bunga and her daughter join us. They are the neighbours. Lady Bunga has a piece of cloth wrapped over her head like a turban. She must have been carrying something heavy just now. Her daughter is wearing school uniform. The bamboo shelter is getting crowded with eight of us. Everyone except the kids and the grandmother want a chance to speak. We ask them why the price of salt fluctuates so much.

Daeng Bunga says, “Our fate is tied to Madura[5]. If they produce more, the prices come down. When they produce less, it goes up. We have absolutely no control.” Situju nods.

Situju’s wife says, “It’s not just that. We also don’t have any control of how much we can produce. It depends on hot and cold. Hot wind comes from the hills; cold wind comes from the sea. If the hot wind is stronger, there is more evaporation. More evaporation, more salt. June to October is usually the best time for hot wind. But then there is the sun and the clouds, hot, cold. How can we control these ‘holts’ and ‘colds’?” Situju nods vigorously.

This has been an especially bad year for salt farmers and prices have hit rock bottom due to abundant production in Madura. The government had advised salt farmers to hoard salt and release it during the months of January to March when prices tend to be higher. However, the farmers had to offload all the salt even at low prices because the peak production period was during the festival of Hari Raya[6] when farmers need more cash at hand.

The conversation reminded me of my friends who worked as traders in financial firms, a profession used to complaining about ‘no control’ when things are going bad. I have been forced to memorize the only thing they could talk about in any conversation, “Don’t ask me how I am. The world is in a mess. Tsunami in Japan, flooding in Thailand, hurricanes with fancy names. Then these wars in Libya and who knows where.Two years of my life gone. And now, the bloody Fed stopped QE. Then this war in Syria is like so normal. And then Putin. And then, China slows down feeling so proud about it. Why did they have to select just this time to cut down corruption? Luxury sector gone. Tourism gone. Mexico also gone. Modi, Jokowi all talk talk talk. And tell me, what was the need for this election in Japan now? People still ask us for returns. Tell me, do I have any control?”

Our salt farmers look a lot more cheerful. Situju tells me, “Well, I have been a salt farmer for fifteen years. So I have seen enough.”

But Daeng Bunga and Situju’s wife unleashes a volley of complaints against the government.
“Nobody cares about the salt farmers,” Situju’s wife says. “In 2012 there was a big tidal flood. All our salt was destroyed. The government said they will give us some compensation and took our names and signatures. Not a single Rupiah has come in since then.”

“Well, once I did get some support from the government to buy the windmills,” says Situju.

But Daeng Bunga cuts him, “But do you remember that time when the government said they will take us to Madura and train us in salt farming? Who are they to train us? We have been doing this over generations. And who did they take? Did they take any real salt farmer? Only the people close to the government for a free trip.”
Situju’s mother goes inside the house with the baby girl to make more space for us.  I take a break to look at the salt fields. The sea has been lured in here and then tamed; waves turned into ripples. The squares used as the den for the sea are fifteen metre by ten metre each. Rows of windowless thatch houses serve as warehouses at the back.

Situju explains the production process,
“The land has to be compacted by hand so that salty water doesn’t seep into the ground. Then we flood a container pond with the sea water for three days. This water is then moved to the smaller squares. The salt begins to crystallize around the corners of these squares. If the sun and wind is good, I can collect salt from these ponds every two days. We don’t process the salt here. We just wash them a bit.”

“But sometimes, if weather is not right, we have to wait for up to a month to produce the first salt,” Daeng Bunga interrupts. “Those times, we have to borrow money at 50% interest to stay alive. The men here also have to look for work in Makassar or in the corn fields here.”

“I own 2.8 acres of salt fields here,” says Situju. “But there are people who will rent this land for salt farming. Then there are the labourers. They do all the hard work for farming the salt. We split the sale in the ratio of thirty to the land owner, seventy shared among the labourers.”

I ask them where the labourers come from. The ladies respond,
“They all come from the hills. They are even poorer than us.”

There are around five hundred families of salt farmers in Jeneponto. Everyone sells their salt to one man.
“We have been selling to John since I have known,” says Situju.  “When times are good, John can buy up to 20 trucks of salt in just one day.”

Indeed, other than horse heads, the road through Jeneponto is lined with sacks of salt, heaped up like pillows, waiting for John.

We ask them what happens during the rainy season.
“During the four months of rain, from December to March, we grow shrimps and small fish called bolu in these salt pounds,” says Situju. “We buy the fry from Takalar. These fish like brackish water.”

Situju’s wife adds, “But again, sometimes the bolu babies die instantly after we release them in these fields. We call sea water as hot water and rain water as cold water. Bolu likes the right mix. Remember what I told you; hot, cold”

Hot air, cold air, hot water, cold water; life for a salt farmer is swings in the rhythm of hot and cold. In Bahasa Indonesia, salt is called ‘garam’. I have always found this peculiar because in many Indian languages, ‘garam’ means hot. I self-congratulate myself on having understood this unproven relationship partly.

The ladies seem to have mastered the art of salt farming better than Situju. So I ask them, “Do women also work in the salt fields?”
They expose their teeth, “No, no; we don’t do any salt farming,” says Bunga. “It’s a man’s job. We do all the housework.”
Situju’s wife puts in an addendum, “Let’s put it this way. We ladies support the salt farmers.”

I ask Situju how he got into salt farming.
“Who wants to be a salt farmer? I had a bachelor’s degree in socio-politics from a university. I wanted to be a civil servant. I took the exam and even paid a bribe to a person who promised me success. But then I saw that I had failed. I didn’t even get my bribe money back. So I returned to run my father’s salt farm.”

Daeng Situju has five children; all of them are going to school. We ask them what plans they have for their children. Situju says, “Of course, young people don’t want to do this. But if they can’t get a job like me, what other job can they do?”

Daeng Bunga adds her view, “How can you even consider salt farming a job? It’s the last option. Only those struck by fate become salt farmers.”

I take a peek at Situju’s house. It looks like any lower middle class family’s residence in Indonesia; clean, tidy, whitewashed rooms with the singular highlight of such houses, one ornate wooden sofa. We walk around his warehouses. There are holes on the thatch roof from which rain water keeps dripping on to the salt. At another warehouse with metal roofing, about fifty open top bags of salt are waiting for John. The grains are big, almost like rice. I take a little taste when no one is looking.

I was expecting the farmers to have skin problems from handling all the salt. But Situju’s skin is smooth as a dolphin’s. When I ask about this, the ladies answer together, “The salt is good for skin. That’s the only benefit of being married to a salt farmer.” Situju nods vigorously.
His wife says, “It’s like medicine. When we have itchy skin, we just rub some salt on it.”

I asked Situju if salt farmers have their own harvest festival. “No,” he says, “We just celebrate when the corn farmers celebrate.”

At this point, I have this sudden urge to do my own Dandi March. I step on the raised ground forming the boundaries between the salt ponds. The soil is soft and and my first step takes my leg deep inside. I am not prepared for this. The next step goes even deeper. The heaps of salt are just a hundred metres away from me. I must move on. But I feel like I am walking on quicksand. My legs feel as heavy as an elephant’s. Somehow, one more step; and deeper; an unholy mess. Everyone is looking at me quietly. I must not give up. But this isn’t for any noble cause like Gandhi’s was. I turn back.

Before saying farewell, we ask them if they think their fortunes will improve with President Jokowi. Daeng Bunga laughs out loud, “It doesn’t matter who comes to power. We will always remain salt farmers. We will always hope against Madura.” Everyone joins in her laughter. 

As we head back to Makassar; the rain intensifies. There is a kilometre long jam because of a fallen tree. This appears to be the wedding season and many grooms are stuck on this road. They step out of their cars to talk to one another.

The contrast between Jeneponto and Makassar couldn’t be starker. Makassar is the poster child of the new Indonesia on the slides in investor forums. It is a town of cranes punching the earth and shaping it into glass towers. It is where the rich and famous of Indonesia have been busy buying their second homes and setting up enormous box-shaped malls. But Makassar is also made of Jeneponto. Every construction worker I meet, every taxi driver, pedicab driver, and servers in roadside eateries; are from Jeneponto.

Andi has been driving taxi in Jeneponto for the last two years. He is sixty years old but his skin is not as smooth as Situju’s family’s. Andi’s family is still in Jeneponto. I ask him why he didn’t become a salt farmer.
“I used to be one. But it is not possible to run a family with that income. After the floods, I became a taxi driver. Income is uncertain but a lot more certain than a salt farmer’s. And I can sleep in my taxi to save money. I go back home every three months. The salt farmers back there think I am rich. Sometimes I drive them around Makassar for fun; their mouths open when they see all these buildings,” he grins.

I ask the same question to Diki, a server in a Nasi Goreng [7]stall near Rotterdam Fort. Diki is in his early twenties and has a anime character hairstyle.
“Two of my brothers are still doing it. But we are six siblings. There are not enough salt farms to give us work. And it is not worth it. Imagine working in the fierce sun day after day. So I moved to Makassar along with my sister and two younger brothers. My brothers work as construction workers over there,” he shows me the strip where many high-end riverfront residences are being built.” Makassar has the highest property prices in Indonesia after Jakarta. “My sister is a pengamen[8]. She knows English songs.” After sometime, Diki fetches his sister Beth. She is short and has a tomboy look. She sings a heavily improvised version of James Blacks, ‘You’re Beautiful’, for me.

After Samudra Manthan, the Gods managed to trick the demons and snatch all the elixir[9]. The demons thereupon were condemned to a life depleted of all mojo. I search for this elixir at the places of the Gods, the rich and mighty of Makassar. At the finely-appointed supermarkets, it is hard to find salt. Only after asking the staff, I could find a few packets, delegated to the bottom of far-away shelves. It is after all a low margin product. The price of this commoditized elixir; 6,000 to 10,000 Rupiah for a kilo; still ten times higher than what Daeng Situju was getting. Could it be possible that the myth of Samudra Manthan was crafted only to justify the life of a salt farmer?

[1] Rice mixed with cold water
[2] Dandi March, or Salt March, was a key moment in India’s independence movement. In 1930, in protest to Britain’s imposed salt monopoly on India, Mahatma Gandhi, together with thousands of protesters, walked for twenty four days to reach the salt pans near Dandi. Gandhi, reportedly, picked up a handful of salty mud at the site as a show of his symbolic defiance of tax laws imposed on Indians for producing salt in India.
[3] 1 US Dollar was 13,000 Rupiah at the time of my visit
[4] President of Indonesia during that period
[5] Madura is a small island near East Java. This arid island is the largest producer of salt in Indonesia.
[6] The Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr
[7] Fried Rice
[8] Street musician
[9] Vishnu, one of the most powerful Hindu Gods transformed himself into Mohini, a very beautiful woman, and lured the demons to part with the pot of elixir. She then began distributing the elixir only among the Gods. Rahu, one of the demons suspected what was happening and transformed himself to look like a god and get in the queue. Just when he was about to drink the elixir, the Sun and Moon Gods identified him and raised a ruckus. Mohini became Vishnu again and attacked Rahu but since the elixir had reached the throat, Rahu survived as a head without a body. Hindus believe that the solar and lunar eclipses are thus caused by Rahu taking revenge periodically.

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