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Dionisio Babo Soares[2]



This paper discusses the Timorese perception of culture and environment.


First, it explores the prevailing East Timorese views on the topic. There are two different definitions –by the literate and the traditional group- of culture and environment in East Timorese society. The paper argues that while the view of the first group is essential, traditional oriented arguments are central to the understanding of Timorese culture and tradition.


Second, using the Mambae and the Tetum  (with reference to Elizabeth Traube[3] and David Hicks’s[4] studies) as point of reference, it concludes that the traditional view is very popular among the East Timorese. From the traditional point of view, perceptions about culture and environment should remain within the realm of local tradition. The outside –and to some extent academic- view of the topic is considered foreign because the Timorese believe that they abide by no culture. Culture or tradition is regarded as social facts as well as given set of rules that are used to govern social life. Environment encompasses land –and everything within it- including the realm of ancestors (sky, heaven and cosmos). Environment is thus an area where ‘we’ live, where ‘our’ land is located, where ‘our’ ancestors were buried and where ‘our’ lineage was founded. It involves both the cosmos and the secular world.  In other words, Timorese perception of culture and environment reflects the way they view their own world.


Third, the Timorese argues that culture plays an imperative role in regulating life within the environment. Both are interrelated and are the very means of human survival. The Mambae say, “men cannot live without knowing his origins (cultural perception); He cannot live without food to eat (the importance of environment)”. So to speak, no human beings without culture and no food without environment. By the same token, environment cannot exist without culture and culture would disappear should no one observes it. In order for ‘life’ (translated here as environment) to exist, there should be culture (rules and norms). Without such pre-devised rules and norms, environment might vanish. Both are essential elements in human life.



I.                   Introduction


Discussions about “culture and environment” in East Timor are coloured by two strands of thought prevalent among the East Timorese[5]. One is the view of those considered educated, town people, the more eminent generation. The second is the view of rural people, of the average people, of the holder of laws (makaer fukun, lia nain)[6] or, what the literate group calls, “traditionally oriented views”.  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 the society on culture and environment in Timorese society. The third part of this paper draws attention to the stages of environmental development in East Timor and finally, to the perception of the natives on environmental problems occurring in that country. The last part of this paper presents some summary comments.


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) which involves evolution, undertaking phases of change and experiencing innovations along with time and peoples’ modes of thinking. Culture is a motion in progress or dynamic actions and ideas which evolve over time and are adjustable to time and technological advancement. In the words of the noted Indonesian Anthropologist, Koentjaraningrat (1990), culture is karya (action, deed, achievement), karsa (initiative, idea, opinion) and rasa (feeling, intuition, emotion, esteem). Culture therefore is subject to change.

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 of a society. 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 and govern social life. These rules/norms should be honoured, respected and upheld by every member of the society. To borrow Durkheim’s words, culture is a social fact that determines the course of action of the society (see figure 1). Adherents of this view, which are 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”. To change tradition means to change the given norms, thereby violating the discourse of social order (labele fila mota suli sae fali; lit., impossible to reverse the flow of the river).


Social Fact




                                                                        True Words








Figure 1. Culture and the People


The overwhelming domination of cosmological thinking in portraying the world is represented also in the traditionalists’ perception of belief, which is seen as part of tradition. This mode of thinking is perceived to be “male-oriented” since it adheres to what is believed to be the “words from the source”. This is parallel with the organisation of some Timorese social organisations where preference is given to men as the guardians of tradition[7]. This Cosmological interpretation would refer to the first mode of thought –the literate thinking- as coming from nowhere, wild, foreign, imported and having no basis in <local> culture (my emphasis).


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 on the issue.[8]


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 than the other. Culture or tradition, for the above reasons, is seen as a “must” and should be observed by society’s members. The recent unrest that took place as a result of dissatisfaction over ways of dressing by some young girls in Dili was due to “not honouring Timorese culture” (Timor Post, November 2000).





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 Indonesia 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. It includes “birth place, place of origin, place to live” (moris fatin, hela fatin) and the realm of “our” ancestors. In this context, place of origin refers to a dwelling site, compound or in a wider sense, an area where life can be nurtured –where animals and plants exist- and where linkage with the “origins” (link between the secular world and the cosmos) can be traced. The definition of environment then relies on how the Timorese perceive their world. Environment thus embodies a territory and everything within it - the people, the land, the heaven (sky), the trees, the animals- including the social order which itself is part, or derivative, of culture and tradition.



Heaven (Cosmos)







                                                                                                            Culture (lulik, adat)

Illuminates the secular world and sets the relation with cosmos.


                                                Secular World

Figure 2: East Timorese perception of Environment



To simplify this, the latter conception of environment encompasses both the cosmos and the secular world as defined by their given boundaries. The Mambai (Traube, 1977) and the Tetum (Hicks, 1978) referred to sky as the realm of the ancestors. In other words, the secular world and heaven (cosmos)[9] together constitute environment as illustrated in figure 2. 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.


Are all 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. Among the Tetum (Hicks, 1978) the Ema (kemak) (Clamagirand, 1980) and the Mambai (Traube, 1977) the world is depicted as, a) consisting of two different sides (male and female), which are opposite but necessary to supplement each other; to generate offspring and to take care of life. However, b) “earth” itself is considered as mother (female) when it is coupled with “heaven” which is referred to as father (male). In their cosmology, the Mambai say that in order for life (interpreted here as environment) to exist, mother and father must live together.

Oval: Cosmos


Father (male)







                                    Earth                                                    Mother (female)





Figure 3: Dual Characteristics of East Timor cosmology (Traube, 1977 and Hicks, 1978)


James J. Fox (1989) calls these descriptions “metaphors for living”.


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.[10] 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:


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.[11]


                                                                                    Altar; Ritual Centre (Cosmos)

                                                                                    Houses of Lineage

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Cultivation area, garden



                                                                                    Bush, Herding Camps

                                                                                    Graveyard, border area


Female World


Male World


Figure 4: Timorese conception of Land (part of environment)


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 when it comes to the sexes (between men & 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.[12] 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.


Thus, this allows the authority of the clan to manage and control the use of resources and, therefore, maintain conservation of the land[13], 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 puts it, “HE is endowed with the power to look after the land, the trees, the plants, the spring, the drainage and the divisions of land[14].


c.       Development of Environmental Problems


Different ethnic groups have different practices to combat environment problems. Thus the Mambai have different ways from the Tetum, the Tetum have different practices from the Fataluco and so on. This is due to differences in land use and vegetation. Whereas the central highland people of Timor grow coffee and maize because of the regular rain they get every year, the lowland people in the costal and eastern-most areas cultivate coconut trees, rice and run livestock (Aditjondro b, 1994). This is due to the semiarid character of the land in some parts of that region.


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 and the introduction of new crops in East Timor. As the experience of the Dutch in the island of Mollucas, marketable crops and plants from Timor were sold on the European market. Likewise, the extinction of a number of native plants and crops and the introduction of foreign crops into the territory also took place during this period. Sandalwood, a tree almost intimately seen as a symbol of pride for the East Timorese, is one example of a native plant family, and coffee and corn, two main crops and now sources of income to the rural population, are examples of new crops.[15] 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


Does in subsistence society such as East Timor, has preserving the environment been a common practice? In general there are three basic perceptions for this argument, which include: One is through everyday experience. People have become familiar with what they encounter in their daily life. 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 surface of land and, perhaps, causing erosion and landslide. The Mambai favours manual land clearing instead.[16]


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 for unknown purposes 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”. The Mambai say “we should not burn the body of mother earth because she has given us food to eat”.  The Tetum (Hicks, 1984) and the Mambae (Traube, 1977) see land, trees, springs and the environment where they live as part of “mother earth’s” body. 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”. In Mambai exegeses, it is said that “if mother earth is hurt, father heaven would give us no rain, so there would be no food”.


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 ones’ 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. The culture and environment where they live represents both secular and cosmological world to these people. Culture is a given norm (cosmos, abstract); land and everything in it represent the secular world. 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.[17] Timorese political leaders, in their personal bibliographies, 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; Gusmao, 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


__________________ (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


Clamagirand, B 1980 The Ema of East Timor in James J. Fox, (ed): The Flow of Life: Essays on Eastern Indonesia, Harvard University Press, 1980


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


Hicks, David, 1978 Structural Analysis in Anthropology, Case studies from Indonesia and Brazil S[ank]t Augustin (bei Bonn): Anthropos-Inst


__________, 1984 A Maternal Religion: The Role of Women in Tetum Myth and Ritual, Illinois : Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1984


Koentjaraningrat, 1990 Antropologi Sosial (Social Anthropology), Dian Rakyat, Jakarta


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] Paper presented at the Conference on Sustainable Development in Dili, East Timor 25-31 January 2001.

[2] Research scholar, Anthropology, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra – Australia.

[3] Traube, E 1986 Cosmology and Social Life: Ritual Exchange Among the Mambai of East Timor, The University of Chicago Press . Chicago and London

[4] Hicks, David, 1978 Structural Analysis in Anthropology, Case studies from Indonesia and Brazil/ S[ank]t Augustin (bei Bonn): Anthropos-Inst

__________, 1984 A Maternal Religion: The Role of Women in Tetum Myth and Ritual, Illinois : Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1984


[5] In East Timor, people’s perception about “culture” is distinguished between logical academic thinking and prevailing values that reflect the “very culture” of the people.

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

[7] This is to explain that 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 novel 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.

[8] The elders, the village people, the mountain people, the conservative and holders of traditional laws (makaer fukun) versus the literate, the educated, the young generation, the city people, which the former would refer cynically to as, people who abide by no law or people who subscribe to no social order.

[9] Some would say the conception of culture and environment involves both cosmos and earthly practices.

[10] Anthropologists such as Fox (1989), Traube (1977), McWilliams (1989) Therik (1995) have identified these in their studies of Austronesian societies, including Timor.

[11] Personal communication with a “liurai” in the village of Matahoi, Watolari, 2000.

[12] This perhaps refers to the “male-female” relationship concept.

[13] 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. The colonialist government began the resettlement (repovoamento) program and the aforamento and arendimento schemes to foreigners. It marginalised some natives and forced them to occupy previously inhabited areas, an occupation that eventually legitimised their claim of individual ownership in later years.

[14] Pers. Comm with ‘liurai’, 2000 - Opcit.

[15] Pers. Comm. Prof J. James Fox, 1999

[16] Nevertheless, one can still find in the foothills of Dili –as in other parts of East Timor- today, that land burning before planting maize is common.

[17] I observed that between 1995 and 1996 in a resettlement centre in Liquiça, people would build small huts outside the house provided by the army as a form of protest in order to be returned to their origins and their environment. They claim that houses provided by the military were too hot for one to stay inside.