05 January 2013

Land use, practice and tenure in south central East Timor: some illustrations

ETLJB 05 January 2013 [Updated 08 January 2012] Guest Poster: Matthew Libbis BA (Hons), Anthropology* - Along the southern coast of central East Timor is a hamlet whose ancestral home is in the hills, which is where they say they are from, no matter where they live, or were born. 

The hamlet was there at the time of the Second World War, and people fled to their homelands in the hills, where most of the villagers still lived, to escape the Japanese, who were sending in fighter aircraft to strafe the Australian soldiers based near the hamlet.[i]
People returned to the hamlet after the war, but again fled when Indonesia invaded. Indonesia moved the entire Tetun village down from the hills, to prevent them assisting the resistance, and settled them along the coast. People from the hamlet that was there during WWII again fled the militia in 1999; however, the more recent arrivals from the village stayed on their new lands.

Indonesia first moved the population onto lands that had a pre-existing Mambai population. The resultant conflicts between the groups over land claims caused Indonesia to remove the newcomers to an uninhabited location further east along the coast.  Nevertheless, conflicts continued between the two villages.

When the militia started shooting livestock and burning crops and houses and trees, instead of fleeing, the village warned the militia that the resistance army, Falintil, was based in their ancestral lands, just a few kilometres up the hill behind the village, and if they did not stop their rampaging, Falintil would attack them.

Totally false, of course, as Falintil was in cantonment by this stage; but it had the desired effect, and the village, who wanted to retain the new found land, was saved from further destruction; however, some were still left homeless, and others were forcibly taken across the border to Atambua. 

In another village consisting of six hamlets that was moved down from the hills, four of the hamlets decided to return to their ancestral lands; the other two decided to stay, having formed bonds such as marriage and trade with neighbouring residents, while retaining their connection to the village. 
One man who had grown up on his parents’ plot in the hills and left to join the resistance at the age of 15 years, returned to stake his claim to his family’s land. It was rugged terrain with wild growth, but it was still fenced off. He visited the neighbours, who remembered his parents planting trees and building fences, and him living and playing there as a child, which would support his claim to traditional title. 

This former resistance fighter also established a non government organisation to cultivate fields that transmigrants had abandoned in 1999. Groups of five local members of clandestine cells collectively farmed two hectares each.

A dam had been built at a nearby river to irrigate 680 hectares, but after one good season for the NGO, the dam collapsed and the fields dried out. The people working the transmigrant land went back to their family plots; only the original Bunak inhabitants remained. But they too had come to rely on the dam to irrigate their fields. 

The neighbouring Mambai dam part of a stream with rocks and mud, and channel water into bamboo pipes to their fields. The Bunak did not, and their crops withered. They know there is a better system, so don’t want to go back to the old ways. They want someone to fix the dam and the irrigation channels that have silted up.  The Bunak say that if there is no water, the crops die, and they will die; others consider them lazy: according to a Mambai man with irrigated fields, they have the knowledge to irrigate, but would rather fuck and sleep than work.

An Australian construction company was contracted to pave the road along the coast, and employed and trained local staff to work on rotation on the project; but the people would only work near their homes. The company explained that they would collect and return the workers to their homes each day, but this missed the point that developing land by building a road gives people claim to that land. 

The company was further frustrated when it reached the border of the Mambai village from which they had recruited, and the Tetun village which had resisted the militia, as there was no way that still feuding groups were going to let each other work on their land, so the company had to recruit and train a new bunch, blowing out their budget and schedule. 

The company was collecting sand and rocks from the river, a matter which concerned a UN land and property lawyer, who requested the Environment Protection Authority investigate. The EPA found that the practice had degraded the environment, but the company argued that the work was done now, and could not be undone. The subsequent wet season washed away the road where the rock and sand had been removed, leaving the bridge crossing the river inaccessible and the residents beyond it isolated. 

The same river divides the majority of the Mambai and Bunak populations who live in that area, although some from each group do live either side of the river. When they fish in the sea, they will do so on their respective Mambai (east) and Bunak (west) sides of the mouth of the river, no matter which side they actually live on.

Spatial orientation has ritual significance: the Tetun bury their dead in an east-west orientation, with the headstone to the east so that when the soul rises it travels in that direction towards heaven. The orientation of east and west reflects a wider social behaviour, where male is represented by the right side, female by the left side. As one faces east, the wild sea of the southern coast to the right side takes the male name, tasi mane; the calm sea on the left and to the north is female, tasi feto. At a wedding, the wife’s family take the meat from the left side of the buffalo, husband’s family from the right. From the (female) interior of a house, as one faces the (male) outside, the left side of the house is female, the male side right. This is further represented by carved roof beam endings; the female ones inside, on which sacred goods are hung; the male beams outside, on which anything can be hung. In the sacred  houses overseen by women, the sacred goods are kept on the left side of the roof; in male houses they are kept on the right side. 

Secondary displacement became a problem with people being repatriated from forced evacuation to find others whose houses had been destroyed now occupying theirs. They still had the skills and materials to build wooden and thatch houses, so set about doing this. 

It takes 10 to 12 men five to seven days to build a house of 6x5 meters, five metres high. The only tool is katana (machete): straight one for the delicate work, intricate ornate decoration, as well as the male and female beams described above, which the old men tend to perform; and a large, curved katana that the younger men use for the more arduous labour – especially roof assembly, which requires tremendous dexterity and strength.

On a house of this size there are eight vertical beams of three metres in length, buried one metre in the ground, with three cross beams of six metres, and two of five metres, and a horizontal roof beam of two metres. All angled roof beams are seven metres. Twine is twisted around the beams and left to dry[ii].

Local eucalypt or teak is used for the beams; the gebang palm is folded and dried for two to four weeks to thatch the roof. Coconut palm was used for roofing in some early rebuilding after 1999 when surviving trees were scarce, but this does not keep out the water.

The construction and architecture of traditional houses in the region are illustrated in the images below.

Approximately half the population prepare their fields by burning, the other half plough the soil. Those whose houses are away from the fields tend to burn, while those who live in houses on their fields, quite sensibly, turn the soil rather than burn the unwanted growth. 

Where there is doubt over transmission of land, edlers’ memories of who has worked the land are relied upon.  Should a dispute arise, it is settled in the customary way of the contesting parties sitting down with the elders and negotiating. Animals are not sacrificed unless some wrongdoing is deemed to have occurred, and the wrongdoer is required to sacrifice a pig or a goat, or if the offence is great, a buffalo. 

A wet rice field in a Mambai area of 10 hectares supports 15 families, with enough rice to eat and leftover to sell. Trampling the fields take 12 to 15 men a month, using 20 to 30 buffalo; while women collect seedlings which they then plant in paddies.

In contrast to the above illustration of conflict and claims to land, there was one instance of a group of eight Tetun families each having a one hectare plot for wet rice cultivation in the irrigated Mambai ricefields.

Plots are divided into heban,or padis, of 30 metres by 90 metres, and cultivation is done on a monthly rotation. There is not enough irrigated land to let any plots to lie fallow. They also grow other crops and have fruit trees and are largely self sufficient. They have chickens and goats, but not pigs as they eat the rice. They hire buffalo to plough the fields from someone in their own village in exchange for rice, or use a hand tractor. They eat the produce and don’t sell any. They share the rice with family members who help them, and they help with their corn and housebuilding when not busy in the ricefields.

Men use a sabit ki’ik (small sickle) to koa (cut, harvest) the rice and sabit bo’ot (big sickle) to clear the weeds, and a hoe to build the heban walls (kabubu). Rice is planted in a small field, then the women collect the seedlings for planting in the broader area.  The families live for about a month in the huts in the fields when the most intensive work is required. 

People who need wetland co-ordinate with people already living there to get unused land. There is no financial transaction, but it is the responsibility of those who are moving in to fence off land from marauding buffalo, pigs and goats. The people moving in still say that they are from their ancestral homeland, and even say that these plots are part of their village. This did not cause any conflict with their Mambai neighbours. In Tetun areas, only if people cultivate land does it become part of village; if people only have a house or a shop, they don’t bring the name of their land with them.

Images illustrating the construction and architecture of houses in the area of the southern coast of central East Timor. (Click on the image to see an enlarged view).

Image 1 As an alternative to using traditional and locally available materials, people flatten out tin barrels to use in the construction of walls and fences. Copyright 2002 Matthew Libbis
Image 2 A raised house with low-hanging eaves, under which cornand other produce is hung to keep out of the reach of livestock and wildlife. Copyright 2002 Matthew Libbis
Image 3 Charred walls and roof beams reveal the aftermath of ritual fires inside that accompany childbirth. The smoke is detrimental to the health of mother and child. Copyright 2002 Matthew Libbis

Image 4 The eastern doors are closed, with no access, and are only open to welcome new life (by marriage or childbirth) as is the custom amongst the Tetun (see Francillon). Copyright 2002 Matthew Libbis
Image 5 Not all houses are constructed in the traditional style, with modern planing of wood, and internal supports. Copyright 2002 Matthew Libbis
Image 6 Diagonal roof beams are carved to nestle thehorizontal beam, which are layered alternately above and below and bound with twisted twine to hold in place. Copyright 2002 Matthew Libbis

[i] Australian veterans wrote about this, eg: Callinan, B (1953) Independent Company: The Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941–43, London: William Heinemann

[ii] Francillon describes in intricate detail the structural purpose of houses of the Tetun of Wehale in southern West Timor, which has many parallels with the Tetun of central southern East Timor. One was the eastern window being permanently covered, which was also observed in the hamlet beginning this piece, but a meaning for which was never ascertained. (Francillon, G (1967) Some matriarch aspects of the social structure of the southern Tetun of middle Timor, unpublished PhD thesis, Canberra:ANU)

*Matthew Libbis conducted anthropological fieldwork from 2000 to 2002 in East Timor, focusing on how the population was making the transition from occupation into independence. In addition to exploring socially sustaining institutions such as marriage, ritual and customs, his research was guided by prevailing issues that most concerned and affected the community, such as tensions between food production and participation in the formal economy, as well as more pressing issues of housing and reconciliation. He returned to East Timor from 2006 to 2008 following the Crisis that ripped the country apart to work in rebuilding the shattered civil society and governance structures. He has more recently been working in community resilience, social inclusion policy implementation, and humanitarian and disaster management, mitigation and recovery.  He may be contacted at malibbis-at-gmail.com

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