Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Land and Life in Timor-Leste

Land and Life in Timor-Leste: Ethnographic Essays

Andrew McWilliam
Elizabeth G. Traube
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: ANU Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Land and Life in Timor-Leste
    Book Description:

    Following the historic 1999 popular referendum, East Timor emerged as the first independent sovereign nation of the 21st Century. The years since these momentous events have seen an efflorescence of social research across the country drawn by shared interests in the aftermath of the resistance struggle, the processes of social recovery and the historic opportunity to pursue field-based ethnography following the hiatus of research during 24 years of Indonesian rule (1975-99). This volume brings together a collection of papers from a diverse field of international scholars exploring the multiple ways that East Timorese communities are making and remaking their connections to land and places of ancestral significance. The work is explicitly comparative and highlights the different ways Timorese language communities negotiate access and transactions in land, disputes and inheritance especially in areas subject to historical displacement and resettlement. Consideration is extended to the role of ritual performance and social alliance for inscribing connection and entitlement. Emerging through analysis is an appreciation of how relations to land, articulated in origin discourses, are implicated in the construction of national culture and differential contributions to the struggle for independence. The volume is informed by a range of Austronesian cultural themes and highlights the continuing vitality of customary governance and landed attachment in Timor-Leste.

    eISBN: 978-1-921862-60-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Map
    (pp. x-x)
  5. 1. Land and Life in Timor-Leste: Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)
    Andrew McWilliam and Elizabeth G. Traube

    In the aftermath of the Indonesian occupation (1975–99) and the bittersweet triumph of the resistance struggle, Timor-Leste emerged as the first new nation of the twenty-first century.¹ The path to independence, however, was a rocky one and left a deep legacy of suffering and social dislocation. In the chaotic withdrawal of Indonesian forces, a final bout of violence, property destruction and population displacement left the half-island nation a smoking ruin under the protection of a multinational peacekeeping force: the International Force for East Timor (Interfet).

    Ten years on, the process of rebuilding continues. A constitutional democratic system of parliamentary...

  6. 2. Origins, Precedence and Social Order in the Domain of Ina Ama Beli Darlari
    (pp. 23-46)
    Susana Barnes

    Since 1999, communities across Timor-Leste have been engaged in what some observers have described as a ‘resurgence of custom’¹ (Hicks 2007). This resurgence is most vividly associated with the rebuilding of sacred ancestral houses (Tetun: uma lulik), which were destroyed, abandoned or fell into disrepair during the course of the Indonesian military invasion and occupation. The reconstruction of these social and symbolic structures has occurred hand in hand with numerous other processes of restoration and renewal including: a return to settlements of ‘origin’ after years of displacement; the physical and/or symbolic laying to rest of the dead and disappeared at...

  7. 3. Opening and Closing the Land: Land and power in the Idaté highlands
    (pp. 47-60)
    Judith Bovensiepen

    In 2006, Xanana Gusmão, the then President of Timor-Leste, launched a national program to ‘return sharp and pointed materials/weapons’ (Tetun: halot meit ho kroat). The aim of the program was to initiate a series of small ceremonies all over the country, in which weapons that had been taken up to fight the Indonesian military would be returned to their proper places (Trindade and Castro 2007:43). Conflicts broke out in Timor-Leste in April 2006 after a dispute within the East Timorese military erupted and turned into a more generalised conflict between different regional factions throughout the country. This internal conflict occurred...

  8. 4. Fataluku Living Landscapes
    (pp. 61-86)
    Andrew McWilliam

    In his magico-realist depictions of life and times in East Timor during the 1960s, Luís Cardoso writes about sharks as transmuted forms of ancestors: ‘No one from the island was ever lost. Sometimes they lived in the sea, sometimes on the land. These cycles demanded their due if they were to continue’ (2000:21). In a variety of evocative encounters, Cardoso draws attention to certain Timorese cultural notions of attachment and agency in relation to land and its living forms that are constituted in terms of spiritual and moral authority. Reminiscing about his own father’s connection to revered freedom fighter Xanana...

  9. 5. Darlau: Origins and their significance for Atsabe Kemak identity
    (pp. 87-116)
    Andrea K. Molnar

    Membership in the former Atsabe domain is not separate from Atsabe Kemak identity. But in order to understand this identity relation, it is important to appreciate the Atsabe Kemak’s relation to land and particularly to places of origin. Darlau Mountain is one such focus, one origin place, and the question of who is a ‘true’ Kemak with a legitimate Kemak identity is enmeshed with this particular place of origin. In this chapter, I discuss the centrality of the great mountain of Darlau in Atsabe Kemak discourse on Kemak origins and identity.

    Within the former Atsabe domain, Darlau is the tallest...

  10. 6. Planting the Flag
    (pp. 117-140)
    Elizabeth G. Traube

    The Austronesian mythology of the stranger king links political order to an encounter between an indigenous presence and a newcomer from somewhere beyond the borders of the realm, often from overseas. Typically, their encounter involves a transfer of power whereby the newcomer takes over functions formerly vested in the indigenous authorities and is installed as ruler of the realm. Origin narratives of this general type are commonly associated with diarchic systems of leadership, in which political power over humankind and ritual authority over the cosmos are vested in complementary offices. The narrative patterning of diarchic divisions varies. In some narratives,...

  11. 7. Water Relations: Customary systems and the management of Baucau City’s water
    (pp. 141-162)
    Lisa Palmer

    In post-independence Timor-Leste people are seeking to rebuild the local and regional social and economic ties that were repressed under the violent 25 years of Indonesian military occupation (McWilliam 2005; Ospina and Hohe 2001; Palmer 2007a; Palmer and Carvalho 2008). Since the intervention in 1999 there has been a flood of aid and development-sector money into Timor-Leste, much of this directed to the water and sanitation sectors (ADB 2007: Schoeffel 2006). While customary practices are often explicitly acknowledged in the official governmental and donor discourses in Timor-Leste (Grenfell 2009), in the arena of water and sanitation the locally dynamic flows...

  12. 8. Finding Bunaq: The homeland and expansion of the Bunaq in central Timor
    (pp. 163-186)
    Antoinette Schapper

    The Bunaq people occupy a large area of central Timor, straddling both sides of the modern border. Whilst the Bunaq of Lamaknen in West Timor have been the focus of detailed ethnographic research by Louis Berthe and Claudine Friedberg, there is no broader work on the Bunaq in other parts of East and West Timor. This chapter aims to contribute to a better understanding of the region of central Timor by exploring the history of the Bunaq-speaking area as a whole.

    The Bunaq are linguistically and socially isolated in central Timor. Bunaq is a Papuan or non-Austronesian language, spoken by...

  13. 9. Tensions of Tradition: Making and remaking claims to land in the Oecusse enclave
    (pp. 187-216)
    Laura S. Meitzner Yoder

    This chapter explores how rural residential and agricultural land claims in Timor-Leste’s Oecusse (Ambeno) enclave are established, maintained and transferred through various means including warfare, agricultural use, allocation by customary leaders and government programs, and migration. Settlement narratives illuminate some basic principles of claim making and explain how local customary leaders and early settlers preserve their favourable positions in relation to land control. This account analyses how landownership is linked to agricultural land use and village (suco) membership; the conditions in which both landowners and non-landowners acquire, borrow and use land; and how landownership and authority are transformed through agricultural...

  14. 10. Struggling Geographies: Rethinking livelihood and locality in Timor-Leste
    (pp. 217-240)
    Sandra Pannell

    The island of Timor could be regarded—to borrow Edward Said’s expression—as a ‘geography which struggles’ (1993:6). Our understanding of this geography is dominated by a discourse of destruction and degradation. Writings about the island and its people commonly talk about the ‘Timor tragedy’ or the ‘Timor problem’. As James Dunn’s account reveals, the tragedy of Timor (see Dunn 1983:xi) is a story of gross injustice and local suffering, linked to the dismal failure of the international community to respond to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1974. Since independence in 2002, it seems that ‘poverty and unemployment’ are...

  15. 11. The Articulation of Tradition in Timor-Leste
    (pp. 241-258)
    James J. Fox

    When The Flow of Life was published in 1980, it was intended to identify some of the distinctive features of eastern Indonesia and to shift perspectives on how the region was viewed. In that volume, Timor figured prominently. Six out of 14 comparative essays—seven, if one counts Rote within this area—were focused on Timor. Previous comparative efforts had been limited and were largely confined to the influential study by the Dutch anthropologist F. A. E. van Wouden. His work, Sociale Structuurtypen in de Groote Oost, in 1935—translated as Types of Social Structure in Eastern Indonesia in 1968—was based largely on fragmentary materials reported by...

  16. Index
    (pp. 259-264)