03 April 2011

Participation, authority, and distributive equity in East Timorese development

Shepherd, C. J. 2009. Participation, authority, and distributive equity in East Timorese development. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 3: 315-342.

After its violent escape from a quarter-century of Indonesian rule in 1999, the new nation of Timor-Leste (before 1974 Portuguese Timor) became the ground for an unparalleled concentration of ‘development
industry’ specialists determined to shape the country according to the most modern ideas of how development should take place. The rural uplands of the island’s interior, where diverse people lived mainly by shifting cultivation and extensive pastoralism, experienced a number of interventions. In a recent paper, four of these interventions are discussed by Australian National University anthropologist Chris Shepherd, who shows how questions of participation, authority and equity have been very variably approached. One project involved almost  literally moving an Australian dairy to Timor; one the setting up of an enclave of industrial agriculture, and one the introduction of improved germplasm under tightly-controlled experimental conditions.

The fourth sought to adapt old Timorese cultural-management practices to help in nothing less than the replacement of shifting by organic permanent agriculture on terraces, and free-range grazing by stall-feeding. We focus on the second and fourth in this short summary.

The enclave of industrial agriculture is a hydroponic greenhouse set up to grow capsicum and tomatoes for buyers in the capital Dili, supplemented by outdoor gardens for a range of vegetables, all set among the unchanged subsistence crop and livestock farming of a community of some 90 families. Only a small group of families was selected for participation and for a year they provided their labour unpaid. They had to accept a considerable number of new rules. When the prospect of real profits began to emerge serious problems were
faced. It had been agreed that 20% of the profits would go to the community as a whole, but how were the profits to be determined? Who would run the project? A wholesaler who bought and delivered the produce might run the enterprise, or the community might own it. The project decided to follow the latter approach, but who then would manage it? Although the participants included village leaders who had been trained, no-one was skilled in management. The widening inequalities within the community had not been resolved. The participants wanted the agency to continue to handle management, resolve technical and social problems and continue to supply inputs. Sensibly in Shepherd’s opinion, the farmers declined to take
ownership; indeed they saw advantages in not doing so.

The ambitious fourth project faced wider issues of land degradation and therefore also of inter-generational equity. It also had wider territorial span. Timor has a long dry season and over centuries has been largely deforested. To reverse degradation it seemed necessary that use of fire be outlawed. But first it was necessary to offer an alternative, and one was provided by a Canadian NGO. The core task involved labour-intensive manual terracing of degraded hillsides and the planting of tree-, staple- and fodder-crops in the terraces, from which livestock were excluded. An appeal was made for social responsibility toward sustainability of practices and livelihoods. It had significant success with some.

To make the bans on fire and free-range grazing work, the NGO revived a neglected traditional ritual practice under which local law regulating farming and dispute settlement had been formalized every few years. It involved an animal sacrifice, the bones displayed on a cross to mark the authority of spiritual ancestors who would punish transgressors fiercely. The NGO involved the Catholic Church in blessing this ritual, thereby also legitimizing the modern addition of a book of regulations and penalties. Even so, a significant minority
of farmers – especially those without land close to their homes, with few cattle and reluctant to undertake the hard work of terracing – continued to resist. Fires were still set but at a distance where the perpetrators could not readily be identified. Another division, albeit not apparently acrimonious as in the case of the greenhouse, had been created between those who participated, and those who did not.

All development initiatives in Timor-Leste have come from outside. After the cultural and political repression of the Indonesian period (even though it did bring some material benefits) the massive and idealistic new wave of interventions has been welcomed. But it has not been without problems. Many Timorese have not liked being told what to do by the developers; those who did gain some professional standing in the Indonesian period now found themselves asked simply to mediate between foreign specialists and the local beneficiaries; there has been a paucity of consultation. Divisions have been created between those who have learned to talk the language of development and have prospered, and those whose embrace of modernity has been more
selective or less rewarding. Efforts to hybridize old cultural institutions, as in the sustainability project, have encountered skepticism from some quarters and great optimism from others.

One decade is a short period and Shepherd does not offer any final judgments. He seeks a broader approach to central questions about who is authorized to define tradition and modernity, and how participation can become a true union of interests in the pursuit of progress with equity.

To communicate with the author, and/or to request a single copy (hard or electronic) of the paper, write to Dr Chris Shepherd at chris.shepherd@anu.edu.au

Shepherd, C. J. 2009. Participation, authority, and distributive equity in East Timorese development. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 3: 315-342.

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