Drawing from and contributing to semiotic and sensory anthropology, this article examines the role of human sensory experience in understanding existential insecurity in the coastal town of Betano, Timor-Leste. Since 2011, Betano has been undergoing preparations for the Tasi Mane Petroleum Infrastructure Project, which has introduced atmospheric changes and socioeconomic challenges to its residents. Using the concepts of qualia and qualisigns, this article analyses three events in which residents sense and make sense of olfactory pollution, damaged marine life, land appropriation, food insecurity, and destitution from future relocation. Building on this analysis, this article proposes that we account for the ways that people’s sensory experiences motivate their responses to new political and economic systems.
Smelling Like the Sea
One sun-drenched afternoon in June 2013, I lost my balance and fell off the outrigger into the Tasi Mane, an oceanic location along the southwest coast of Timor-Leste. My eyes stung as I clamoured up to the boat only to be greeted with howls from Tiu Jose, the patriarch of my host family. ‘After all this time you’re still so clumsy!’. When I reached for my bottle of water to soothe the burning, Tiu cried, ‘Aii, what are you doing?! You don’t want to smell like us? Like the sea?!’. Duarte shushed his father, ‘Do you think any one of us will smell like the sea anymore now that there is oil?’. Pinching his nose Tiu replied, ‘Then, I will fight or stop breathing!’.
I remember stepping onshore awash with questions about the coupling of smells to person and place invoked by Tiu Jose and his son Duarte, and the role of the senses among their fellow Mambai-speaking residents of Betano. Instead of taking advantage of my clumsiness at sea, I was about to wash away the opportunity to olfactorally acquaint myself with my host. Tiu’s response to my nearly ill-fated act indexed olfactory markedness among Mambai to whom smelling like the sea linked relations among persons with one’s place of dwelling. How dare I squander an opportunity to soak up the smell of the sea, with the hope that some of it might cling to me, and eventually bring me closer to my host? Duarte, on the other hand, cast doubt into this particular coupling of sensing and sociality. Since 2011, Betano has been undergoing preparations for the Tasi Mane Petroleum Infrastructure Project, which has introduced existential challenges to residents’ knowledge of self and sociality. Faced by impending oil infrastructure development in Betano, Duarte’s reflections prompt us to ask, in what ways does oil and its distillates affect Mambai knowledge of self and sociality? Tiu, however, would not give in to oil’s demands upon the reorganisation of his sensual awareness. Tiu’s response—that he will fight before ceasing to live—invites us to reflect on a central question in this article: How do people’s sensory experiences motivate their responses to new political and economic systems, such as those introduced by megaproject development?