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MC9.3 "Water" as a Contested Element

"Water" as a Contested Element Between Cosmological, Environmental and Economic Ascriptions and Knowledges: Indonesian Perspectives

Coordination: Annette Hornbacher


Access to water is crucial for every society, and this applies to Indonesia in a specific way. With its thousands of islands, the Indonesian republic represents a unique ‘waterscape’ that is characterized by great cultural and ecological diversity. Many of these cultural differences are directly related to ecological differences and particularly to the distinctive availability, use, technologizing and significance of water. On the Western and central islands including Bali, tropical rain forests and wet rice cultivation correspond to a distinct cultural history, which is the result of its location along the maritime trade route between India and China. The abundant wet rice economy of Bali reflects the connection of ecological and geographical aspects with a sophisticated irrigation technology, which correspond to an extravagant ritual tradition that integrates local animism with Hindu-Buddhist ideas of purity and a geocentric cosmology that is based on the flow of water between the holy mountains and the sea. Balinese regard water not merely as a natural resource but simultaneously as a manifestation of divine presence and purification. However, the worship of water is by no means a distinctive feature of Bali or of Indian influence rather it connects the different religions and cultures of Indonesia. The islands east of Bali are predominantly savannahs with regular droughts. Wet rice cultivation is almost impossible and instead of Hindu-Buddhist cosmologies, ancestor worship and animism are practiced along with Christianity or Islam. Notwithstanding such fundamental differences with regard to religion, water is venerated in all of these regions in different ways: Whereas for Balinese springs and rivers are centers of worship, the Muslim society on the island of Komodo venerates confluences of freshwater and seawater, which are regarded as ancestral places.

The anthropological Sub-project MC 9.3 investigated the complex culture specific significance of different concepts of water with respect to two islands: Bali and Komodo. The challenges of the global ecological water crisis and the influence of mass tourism have caused severe pollution and scarcity of water resources; impacts which are locally mediated with reference to local ideas and practices that address water as a holy element.
First, we examined how the Balinese deal with the fact that freshwater which is venerated as the paradigm of purity and divine abundance, is in fact polluted and has become a scarce resource as a result of agribusiness and mass tourism. We further investigated the relation between a modern Western paradigm of ecology and water sustainability on the one hand, and on the other hand the culture specific ideas of environment and water in the small society of Komodo island, which is the center of the national Marine park of Komodo that is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve.



Prof. Dr. Annette Hornbacher investigated the changing human-environment concepts and relationship on the island of Komodo with special regard to the giant lizards, which are unique for this region and the ultimate reason for the national and international interest in Komodo as an ecologically protected area. Local ideas about the relation of land and water, particularly in relation to the giant lizards as mythological twins of the people of Komodo, have been examined against the rise of a modern paradigm of environmental protection and eco-tourism that is promoted by international and national actors like UNESCO, NGOs and the Indonesian government.



(Lea Stepan)



On the island of Bali, springs and rivers are not only essential for the wet rice economy, they are also venerated as cosmological manifestation of divine presence. The flow of water guarantees the macrocosmic connection between the holy mountains and the sea as well as the microcosmic flow of life within the human body. Thus, water engineering in Bali’s traditional irrigation system is not merely an agricultural technology but it is also related to a system of water temples. Irrigation has therefore been described as a culturally embedded technology involving cosmological knowledge as well as distributed responsibilities and social cooperation among economically competing farmers (Lansing). However, agricultural modernization (the green revolution) and mass tourism have led to dramatic changes in this ‘waterscape,’ including pollution and water shortages. As a result the socio-economic, environmental and cosmological knowledge of Bali is confronted with challenges that lie beyond the traditional Balinese epistemology and ontology of ‘holy water’.

The sub-project MC 9.3 (Bali) investigated the response of Balinese rice farmers in the district of Tabanan to perceived environmental changes; especially how new ecological and socio-economic challenges affect the local practices of “holy water”. These negotiations are sometimes driven by basic social or economic necessities, at other times they reflect ambivalent conceptualizations that veil the scale of environmental degradation. The results ultimately raise the question: to what extent is the conceptual framework of a local cosmology useful for the critical evaluation of present-day environmental problems. This question emerges with special relevance to the broader picture of environmental impacts by Global Climate Change and the effects of incorporation into global chains of exchange. This further raises critical questions for concepts of environmental ethics in human-water-relationships.