Make your own free website on


Summary of full paper[1]

Dionisio Babo Soares, Research Scholar, Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.


I.                   Introduction

This paper discusses the Timorese perception of culture and environment

Discussions about “culture and environment” in East Timor are coloured by two strands of thought prevalent among the East Timorese. One is the view of those considered to be educated. The second is the view of traditional rural people, of the average people, of the holder of laws (makaer fukun, lia nain)[2].  Let me anticipate my argument by saying that the view of the second group seems to dominate the discourse of Timorese perception about culture and environment.


I would like to begin by highlighting briefly the views of the two different groups on the above topic. Then, I will take a close look at what I term the “general perception” of Timorese society on culture and environment. The third part of this paper draws attention to the stages of environmental development in East Timor and finally, to the perception of the Timorese on environmental problems.

II.                Culture: Local Perceptions

There are two different perceptions of the meaning of culture among the East Timorese.

1.      One is the view held by what I would like to call literate Timorese. For this group, culture is a process (Ahmadi 1985; Daryanto, 1972 Geertz, 1973) that involves evolution, undertaking phases of change and experiencing innovations along with time, people’s modes of thinking and technological advancement.

2.      The second view however is that culture is a package of rules of social order set by the ancestors; it is a tradition, inherited from the early ancestors. Here, culture is seen as neither a process nor an evolving system. On the contrary, it is a given set of rules or norms that determine social behaviour. These rules/norms should be honoured, respected and upheld by every member of the society. Adherents of this view, whoare referred to as “traditionalists”, believe that failure to honour culture and observe tradition will result in social instability; thus events like natural disasters, failure in harvesting, famine, spread of contagious disease and deaths will proceed naturally. Culture, so to speak, is a tradition inherited from the “source”, from the “origin” and from the “great ancestor”.


Male oriented thinking is dominant in this society. The lineage of an ethnic group is drawn from the male line and it is the male children that have access to family heritage. The male is given the task of protecting the women and the environment. A lineage can always be traced back to Aman Boot, Katuas Boot [mambae: tata-mai] or the “eldest father” or the “great ancestor” of the clan who is HE. Such a view is considered to be the ‘core’ part of ‘culture’ and is followed by the society at large.


I do not want to draw you into an anthropological debate over the concept of culture, yet the two schools of thought above reflect the divergence of ideas between the two groups within Timorese society. The elders, the village people, the mountain people, the conservative and holders of traditional laws (makaer fukun) would refer cynically to the literate, the educated, the young generation, the city people as people who abide by no law or people who subscribe to no social order.


The question is: Which is the view shared most by the East Timorese?

To provide an appropriate answer to this question we need more in depth anthropological research. However, the fact that 70% of the Timorese population live in rural areas and that most of today’s city dwellers were initially rural inhabitants, suggest that the traditional perception of culture carries more weight.


III.             Environment: Local Perception


With this in mind, let us move on to the term environment. There is no classificatory word in Tetum (the lingua franca in East Timor) that can be translated literally as environment.

1.      To the literate East Timorese, environment is translated as ambiente (Portuguese) and is understood in Bahasa Indonesian as linkungan  (lit., living area, surroundings), the latter being interpreted as the “ecosystem”. Any discussion of environment among this group has more to do with its meaning in an academic sense and not with a cosmological hypothesis.

2.      However, to the other group, environment has been interpreted as the way people view their world. “Environment” is defined as an area that encompasses cosmos (heaven) and territorial jurisdiction (secular world). It includes “birth place, place of origin, place to live” (moris fatin, hela fatin) and the realm of “our” ancestors.


Whatever is associated with the environment has its place in, or is regulated by, the “words of the ancestors”. These are the rules and guidance inherited through tradition that, in the perception of most East Timorese, constitutes social order and governs social life.


What do these perceptions have to do with sustainable development in our context?


IV.              Reconciling perceptions of culture and environment

a.       Dualistic Character


As discussed, Timorese perceptions of culture and environment are influenced by the way they perceive the world - the environment - in which they live.


Opposite but parallel metaphors are characteristics of Timorese social thinking (see Therik, 1995; Fox, 1989). Couplet forms such as: “good/bad”, “right/left”, “male/female’ “day/night” are general traits in the way the Timorese portray the world. Thus, for “good” to exist, there should be “bad”. Likewise, “day” cannot exist without “night” and, by the same token, “men” cannot exist without “women” and vice versa. Thus environment, in Timorese thinking, might not exist without preconceived cultural devices inherited from the ancestors and vice versa. All these metaphors provide a picture of the description of the environment and the place which the Timorese inhabit (See Traube, 1977, McWilliam (1989), Therik, 1995).


b.      The Position of Environment: Traditional Perception


The “Environment” is depicted as standing between “good” and “bad” behaviours. The Environment can be preserved and allowed to nurture life when the forces of “good will” stand strong and are able to combat the “bad” (evil behaviours).


‘Good’ refers to resources, proper treatment and care of land and everything in it. It can also mean wealth - mines, land, plants or sandalwood - good harvests and the source of wellbeing. ‘Bad’ is associated with objectionable land use, human error, waste of resources, land erosion and everything associated with, or resulting from lands’ misuse such as poor harvests, floods, landslides and the degradation of the environment in general.


As mentioned before, a reference to the environment encompasses a territory consisting of plants, trees and animals that exist within the vicinity of the clan. Plants, trees, springs and land are the very means of a group’s survival. People used to say, “my environment (lit., hau nia quintal, hau nia tos) is also my garden and its surroundings”, as it is understood in Indonesian, linkungan. A conversation with a traditional authority reveals the following words (pers comm. with a “liurai” in the village of Matahoi, Watolari, 2000):


My environment has been here for generations, since the days of my great ancestors. They lived here; they were buried here. It was they who looked after our gardens, our trees, our flowers, our animals, our water and our life. I should not give this land to other people. Should I give up this land to other people, my ancestors will punish me.


Within each ethnic group there is a predetermined set of regulations on the use of natural resources. Although there is clear imbalance - some would call it discrimination - in wealth distribution between men and women, social tasks are structured on a balanced approach. Everyone has an equal duty to preserve the ecosystem. This “environment” is looked after collectively by the lineage because the collectiveness of the group is vital to the very survival of the environment. The negative impact of burning practices and ensuing conflicts that may arise due to fire accidents on each other’s property serve as an example of why the Timorese see collective arrangements as indispensable[3].


Thus, this allows the authority of the clan to manage and control the use of resources and, therefore, maintain conservation of the land, thanks to the clear division of land under the kinship system. Furthermore, the traditional political structure provides a mechanism that allows the environment to be preserved. In this structure, for example, a liurai (lit., king, traditional ruler) is assisted by several datos. One of these is given the power to look after the environment. As one Luirai put it (pers comm. 2000), “He is endowed with the power to look after the land, the trees, the plants, the spring, the drainage and the divisions of land”.


c.       Development of Environmental Problems

Different ethnic groups have different practices to combat environmental problems. This is due to differences in land use, climate and vegetation.

A lack of modern means of land clearing, planting and harvesting is a characteristic of the subsistence agriculture system in East Timor. However, poor management of this approach leads to poor production in the agriculture system and destruction of land and the vegetation in general.


Things became worse with the developments that took place throughout the colonial period. Subsistence ways of caring for the environment have, in the last 20 years, failed to cope with the mass destruction of the environment. On the one hand, the chemical effects of napalm bombings and forced resettlement practices by the Indonesian military (Aditjondro a & b, 1994), which have contributed greatly to the changes in the environment and social structure, are so huge in scale that they superseded the traditional capacity to handle them. On the other hand, slash and burn practices prevail as a result of the shortage of labour and efforts, or the need, to “save time and energy”.


In general, there have been three different stages of environmental development in East Timor.


The first stage is the pre-European colonisation period. An account of environment development during this period is scarcely available and few reports can be obtained about it except some praising tales about Timor’s beautiful forests, the scenic greenery of the island, the abundant sandalwood it produced and the mosaic diversity of its people’s culture. Early Chinese and Portuguese accounts of East Timor highlight these first impressions on outsiders on arrival in this island (see Castro, 1943). The reality is that during that period each ethnic group controlled its own environment that lay within its social, economic and political jurisdiction.


The second phase is the European - most notably the Portuguese - colonisation period. This period saw the exploitation of native crops for commercial purposes by the Portuguese.  The extinction of a number of native plants and crops and the introduction of foreign crops into the territory  took place during this period. The destruction and degradation of the environment resulted from this “replacement”, and the period after it has not been documented.


Studies have yet to count the massive loss of life, destruction of vegetation and the suffering that the East Timorese had to endure as a result of Japanese and Australian governments’ engagement in the territory during World War II.


The third stage of environmental development is the period of Indonesian occupation. This period saw a mass destruction of the environment throughout the territory, both as a result of deliberate action by the Indonesian government and the army, and the lack of understanding on the part of the East Timorese about how to preserve their environment. As to the former, economic development of the new order government compelled people to give up their lands. Similarly, forced resettlement of the population by the military detached people from their sacred lands. As to the latter, slash and burn practices prevailed; these traditional land clearing practices to “save time and energy” are still practiced widely today and in turn contribute heavily to land erosion and low quality harvest products (see Aditjondro a & Aditjondro b, 1994).


These three historical periods of development are only small parts of the problem that continues, and will continue, to challenge environmentalists and everyone working on environment issues in this new country.


V.                 The Importance of the Environment: Local Perceptions


In a subsistence society such as East Timor, has preserving the environment been a common practice? In general there are three basic perceptions for this argument.  Firstly through everyday experience. For example, practices that lead to the destruction of land have traditionally been perceived as “harming” (halo a’at) or destroying the land. For example, the Mambai, forbids slash and burn practices as these are perceived as destroying (halo a’at) the land and, perhaps, causing erosion and landslide. The Mambai favours manual land clearing instead. Nevertheless, one can still find in the foothills of Dili, as in other parts of East Timor today, that burning before planting maize is common.


Second is the belief that land is mother “earth’s body” and “we”, as her children, should look after our mother’s body. Thus, the practice of cutting down trees is seen as violating the rules set forward in culture and tradition. “Mother earth” is believed to have sacrificed her body - the land - to produce food for her children (see Traube, 1977). Timorese exegeses highlight that the ancestors normally let “mother earth” rest after every harvest season. The nomadic character of the East Timorese may provide hints for this rationale. For example, in the past, seasonal movement of people was common, especially after the harvesting period. The Timorese believe that any part of land that has just yielded crops is exhausted and should be left “resting” for a while, and the next planting season should take place in another field. This aims to preserve the land (husik rai bokur, lit., fattening the soil)  so that it can produce more in the following year. The Timorese would say, “we must love our land and take care of it, otherwise it would not give us food”. Soil, rocks, trees and springs constitute mother earth’s skin and should be protected and sustained. “Mother earth” will show her anger, should part of her body be injured. She would normally manifest her anger in the form of “poor production of crops, earthquakes, poor fishing conditions and so on”.


Third, to “protect” the environment the Timorese would use a “forbidden sign” (horok, lulik) to prevent the land from misuse. This sign takes the form of leaves (ai tahan maran), a bunch of betel nuts tied together (bua ho malus) or a half coconut fruit (nu’u sorin baluk), which are normally displayed at the entrance of one’s property. Apart from showing claims of ownership, the display aims to prevent trespassing and stealing. Horok or lulik is also used as a means to prevent destruction or to avoid “bad” behaviour (vandalism) that may damage the environment - mother earth’s body.


Indeed, in his account of the life of Bishop Ximenes Belo, Arnold Kohen described how intimately the Timorese are tied to their land (1999:47) and how faithful they are to their religion.  Land is a place where they live, where the people’s lineage is formed, where their gardens are established, where the graves of their ancestors are located and, most importantly, where their origins can be found. Timorese political leaders, in their personal biographies, acknowledge the central position of “land” (translated here as place of birth, moris fatin) in their -and the Timorese- life (see Ramos-Horta, 1987; Bishop Belo in Kohen, 1999; Gusmão, 2000). Xanana Gusmão is known for one point he made years ago, “my bush is my university”. My own grandfather used to say “my moris fatin” is my school.


VI.              Conclusion

To sum up, when talking about culture and environment in East Timor, one should observe how these are perceived at the local level. One may take the most sophisticated theory to define the meaning of culture and apply the most sophisticated techniques to solve environmental problems. Yet, such sophisticated approaches may exert a new type of “degradation” on the environment of the locals, a degradation that devalues existing values and local culture. 


In Timorese perception, environment is confined not only to the land or the area where one lives. It is a place where life is all about. It is a place where the life of the clan is invested, the place where the history of the existing lineage can be found, the site of ancestors’ graveyards, the place of a clan’s sacred altar and other cosmologically related affairs.


The Timorese interpretation of culture and environment parallels their view of the world. The two are therefore important components of life and they “support” each other in their actions. One determines the course of action of the other and vice versa. Finally, culture, in Timorese perception, is also the means to take care of the “environment”, and the latter may not exist should culture not be respected. Both are interrelated and are the very means for human survival. 




















VII.           Bibliography


Aditjondro, G. Junus (a), 1994 From Memo to Tutuala: A Kaleidoscope of Environmental Problems in East Timor in Herb Feith, Emma Baulch, Pat Walsh: East Timor: An Indonesian Intellectual Speaks Out, Development Dossier No 33, ISBN 0 909 831 610, Australia


Aditjondro, G. Junus (b), 1994 In the Shadow of Mount Ramelaw: Some Sketches of East Timorese Culture in Herb Feith, Emma Baulch, Pat Walsh: East Timor: An Indonesian Intellectual Speaks Out, Development Dossier No 33, ISBN 0 909 831 610,  Australia


Ahmadi, H. Abu, 1985 Sosiologi, Surabaya: Bina Ilmu


Castro, G. Pimenta de, 1943 Timor: Subsidios Para A Sua Historia, Agência Geral da Colónias, Lisboa – MCMXLIV



Daryanto, 1972  Sosiologi. Bandung, Fakultas Sastra, Universitas Negeri Padjadjaran



Fox, James J.,, 1989 Category and Complement: Binary Ideologies and The Organisation of Dualism in Eastern Indonesia in David Mayburry-Lewis and Uri Almagor (eds) The Attraction of Opposites: Thought and Society in Dualistic Mode, The University of Michigan Press, Michigan


Geertz, Clifford, 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York : Basic Books


Gusmao, Xanana, 2000 To Resist is to Win: The Autobiography of Xanana Gusmao; with selected letters & speeches/ edited by Sarah Niner ; principal translators, Jose Luis Perestrelo Botelheiro ... [et al.], Richmond, Victoria : Aurora Books



Kohen, Arnold, S., 1999 From the Place of Dead: Bishop Belo and the Struggle for East Timor, A Lion Book, Oxford, England


McWilliam, Andrew 1989 Narrating the Gate and the Path: Place and Precedence in Southwest Timor, Unpublished PsD Thesis, The Australian National University


Ramos-Horta, Jose  1987 Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor, preface by Noam Chomsky, Trenton, N.J : Red Sea Press


Therik, G, T., 1995 Wehali-The Four Corners Island: Cosmology and Tradition of A Tetum Ritual Centre, Unpublished PhD Thesis, Anthropology, RSPAS, The Australian National University


Traube, E., 1977 Ritual Exchange Among the Mambai of East Timor: Gifts of Life and Death, A PhD Thesis, Harvard University



[1] Summarised by organising committee

[2]Makaer Fukun (panel of authorities) and lia-nain (holder of words) refer to people with power or traditional authorities.

[3] On the issue of land tenure system, there were two claims of ownership in East Timor. One is individual ownership and the other is collective right. The disappearance of collective rights came about as early as 1912 when individual claims of ownership came to the fore.