Harvesting Salt in Bali

There must be something sacred in salt. It is in our tears and in the sea” Kahlil Gibran

Ah, Bali!!! For most people, the mere mention of the word evokes thoughts of an exotic paradise with palm trees and beautiful beaches where one can relax all day. But, for people like me who are not very good at sunbathing, Bali, nicknamed “the Island of the Gods”, conjures images of Hindu temples, daily offerings, worship ceremonies, and colorful processions. Bali is all of these things and much more. And for this first post on Bali, surprisingly, I will focus on its beaches, though not the ones where vacationers relax. The beaches that caught my interest were the ones of Kumbasa where people harvest salt from the sea.

Kumbasa is a traditional Balinese fishing village on the eastern part of the island sitting on the Indian Ocean. A small number of salt farmers are still traditionally harvesting salt. Among them are a 50-year-old man named Kaplag and his wife Sekar, who have been salt farmers all their lives, just as Kaplag’s parents were. I had seen salt harvesting from salt flats in other locales, but the Balinese way is quite different.

Early morning, Kaplag makes repeated trips to the ocean with a bamboo pole on his shoulder to which two leather buckets are attached. He fills the buckets to the brim with seawater and brings back his heavy load to an area of raked sand. He has learned to walk with small steps, one foot neatly ahead of the other, to neither spill the water nor disturb the sand.   Kaplag then splashes the seawater in a rhythmic motion so that just enough water is spilled at a given spot. Then the Indonesian sun takes over the process by “baking” the sand into flakes from which the salt is to be harvested.

Early afternoon, Kaplag and Sekar collect the thin flakes that they put in a large wooden drum inside a small shaky hut on the beach. The sand is then carefully raked again to prepare for the next day.   Kaplag repeatedly washes the salt flakes with fresh water to create saltwater brine through what looks like a miniature canal system. The brine is then poured over long table-like structures where the sun can do its absolute magic, and through evaporation, the brine is transformed into crystals. Depending on the sun’s strength, this process can take multiple days.

When the crystals are formed, Sekar takes over and scrapes the grains of salt with a bamboo-leaf cone and a coconut shell. The salt is then ready to be sold to the “salt collectors,” who show up at the end of each day. Sekar uses a blue container to measure the yield, and its contents (about one kilo) will sell for 5,000 Indonesian rupiahs (about 50 cents). Kaplag and Sekar produce about 15 of these containers on a good day.

Kaplag’s mother and sister also contribute to the family’s income but not directly to the salt-making process. They both weave mats out of bamboo leaves that they then sell. They also take care of the few animals the family owns, a few chickens and a couple of pigs.

There is no doubt that salt harvesting is a labor-intensive process that produces a minimal yield. Although the high-quality salt harvested will eventually sell at a high price to some salt connoisseurs, sadly Kaplag and Sekar do not see much financial return for their hard work. In fact, Kaplag and Sekar are the last generations of salt makers in the family. None of their three children will follow in Kaplag’s tiny footsteps on the raked sank of Kumbasa beach.




12 Responses

    1. Thank you Sally. Yes, the work is incredibly tedious and demanding, for not much at the end of the day. This is why there are very few people left doing it. I am guessing this is going to disappear soon or it may become a tourist attraction, who knows?

  1. Fascinating, France. I didn’t know this process. Your photos and prose capture the long days and traditions of this very hard-working family. (Good job “on the beach”.)

    1. Thanks Kathy. My kind of “beach” activities. But “long days” is right, these people start at dawn and when they are done with the salt, they take care of the animals, get bamboo for the weaving….

  2. So interesting France. Was this part of your assignment while attending the Foundry Photojournalism workshop? You find the most amazing things to pursue. I love to follow you around the world!

    1. Catherine, Nice hearing from you. Yes, the assignment is to find a story on your own and go photograph it. I always like these small family “business” so I was looking for one of those. Just come along whenever you want.

  3. I am reminded of a quote
    “‘Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all”
    Nelson Mandela

    I can well understand Kaplag and Sekar’s children no longer wanting to carry on this labour intensive toil and it is always sad marking the end of a way of life even when one knows it has to be.Just imagine how many people these farms have supplied with their salt !
    Do you know what other industries are springing up to create jobs in the area ?

    Your photography really captures the story of their lives, both as a historical record and in artform

    1. Dear Emilie, sooooo sorry for my very late reply. I am just back from a trip to remote China where I had very limited internet access. I like your quote. Yes I too understand why salt-making as currently done does not appeal to the younger generation. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a substitute job-providing industry except tourism. As a result, there is an amazing number of men in the streets of Ubud and other cities offering taxi rides to the numerous foreign tourists. In fact, this is a situation of concern as many young men prefer to drive tourists than deal with the demands of farming work in general including rice growing. Hopefully someone will find a way to slow that trend.

Would love to hear from you!

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