Written by Michael Rose

In 2017 the Global Hunger Index ranked Timor-Leste as 110 out of the 119 on its list of adequately fed countries – a little ahead of Yemen (114) but behind Afghanistan (107). While this might be said to constitute a national emergency, and there is no clear reason why commentators and politicians concerned with the country have any higher priority, the state of its agricultural sector is an issue that receives relatively little attention.

The majority of the young nation’s people are farmers, and in the highlands, ‘low productivity’ swidden farming continues to predominate. Although newer methods have long been promoted, their uptake in the hills can be complicated by local perspectives that hold natural events to be determined by spiritual forces. In this blog, I use a case study from the Oecussi enclave’s Kutete village, to discus the challenges this can pose to agricultural reform.

Given the speed at which its population is growing, successfully promoting new agricultural methods in Timor-Leste is likely to be essential if the nation is to avoid catastrophe.

In Oecussi, as throughout Timor, the highlands are not as cut off as they once were. Just fifty years ago most of its indigenous people (the Meto) spent their lives in isolated hamlets where direct interaction with the outside world was unusual. Now, even those who don’t live in urban areas have relatives that do, and connections to the cash economy and the city are the norm.

Given the speed at which its population is growing, successfully promoting new agricultural methods in Timor-Leste is likely to be essential if the nation is to avoid catastrophe.

Meto customary realms are structured around the negotiated accommodation of strangers. Historically these were outside groups who were invited to settle and given land and authority. In return these newcomers would accept and recognise as indispensable the spiritual precedence of those who received them. This framework still influences life in Oecussi. Although ‘modern’ perspectives are becoming dominant, success or failure in urbanised settings is often still attributed to the power of powerful ancestral spirits.

In the latter half of 2014 I watched as representatives from an Australian NGO visited my highland field site in Kutete. They were there as part of a long running campaign to encourage people to cultivate manually watered and composted permanent gardens (lele mbi bale). Though active in the area for a decade or so, they found instigating change difficult. In Kutete, they discovered, new agricultural methods were suspect because they were (as far as the locals were concerned) unproven and represented a radical divergence from the order of things set out by the ancestors (atolan).

Land in the mountains of Oecussi is divided into small plots known as seimu. Most families have between five and ten of these. In July or August, people start to discuss which one they will use to plant their garden that year. As August moves into September, the hills of Oecussi resound to the thwack of machetes hitting wood as people start this process by hacking the limbs off any trees in their chosen plot (pae lele). As the heat builds and the storm clouds approach, mountainsides become mottled with denuded forest ready for burning.

In October or November, the cleared patches are set alight (hotu paet), the ashes creating a productive bed for maize and rice. After the rains arrive in December or January people set out with their digging sticks to begin planting. This part of the agricultural cycle has ritual as well as practical utility – the seeds they use are usually saved from the previous year’s crop and hung from the central pole of each clan’s sacred house (uem le’u). In this way each years’ planting is an expression of the belief that the ancestors, thought to be present there, are essential to the continuation of life. Finally, in March or April, comes the harvest, with the maize tied into bundles for smoking in the village’s round houses.

The agricultural cycle in Oecussi is punctuated by a series of rituals known as fua pah that are believed necessary for the harvest to be successful.  In these ceremonies the ancestors are informed of what has happened during the year, and through signs divined from the liver of a slaughtered pig, consulted about what must be done in the next. In this way, the idea that a distinction can be made between agricultural and ritual work, or that agricultural science should be the main consideration in managing the land and understanding its vicissitudes, is counter intuitive. For the people of Kutete, the system works. Yes, there are lean years, but then they feel like they understand what has gone wrong, and have a way of making things better. In good years, they see manifested in the harvest the continued presence and care of those who have passed away.

The message the NGO was bringing to the people of Kutete was clear; if they didn’t change their way of managing the land it might become almost uninhabitable before their kids are old. While in the past there had been empty land to expand on to, now there was not. And yet, after a decade of meetings and training, each October the mountainsides still go up in smoke. A former village chief said he thought only 10% of the people used the new methods.

Rather than being anachronistic or simply a result of highland isolation, the low uptake of new farming techniques in Kutete seems to be, at least in part, a deliberate choice. Its people appear to maintain a sense of control over their fate. The agricultural techniques the NGO was promoting (though objectively more productive) were based on a premise – that the condition of the land and the success of the harvest are dependent on an impersonal natural world, which is generally not accepted there. Despite Kutete’s indifference to scientific agriculture, it would be a mistake to equate it with the rejection of ‘modern’ knowledge. Rather, what it seems to shows is a refusal of some highlanders to yield to any idea or institution that negates their agency to understand and interact with the world on their own terms. In the days of wandering people/clans (atoin amnao-nemat), those who asked for permission to enter the land (toit lisenca) could be accommodated, whilst those who did not, were resisted. The same principle still applies today for outside ideas, technologies, and modes of governance.

Given the speed at which its population is growing, successfully promoting new agricultural methods in Timor-Leste is likely to be essential if the nation is to avoid catastrophe. Though public servants and NGO actors are sometimes understandably wary of agricultural methods based on anything other than empirical science, if they hope to make a lasting difference understanding these perspectives, and taking those who hold them seriously, is an indispensible step.

Michael Rose is an anthropologist who was recently awarded his PhD from the Australian National University. He would be thrilled to hear about any postdoc, writing or teaching opportunities that you might have going. You can contact him at michael.rose@anu.edu.au. Image Credit: Flickr/UNDP Timor Leste

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