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Timor-Leste: Maubere tribes revive customary law to protect the ocean

  • Traditional laws governing the management of natural resources known as tara bandu were outlawed during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. Since the country gained independence in 2002, it has been reviving the tradition in an attempt to control the exploitation of its forests and oceans.
  • There are signs tara bandu has had a positive effect on some local forest, mangrove and coral reef ecosystems.
  • Esteem for tradition seems to outweigh the adverse effects tara bandu has had on some people’s livelihoods, encouraging respect for the law.
  • This is the first story in Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Maubere’s revival of tara bandu.
Read the other stories in Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Maubere’s revival of tara bandu:
Timor-Leste: Q&A with a Maubere fisherman on reviving depleted fisheries
Timor-Leste: With sacrifice and ceremony, tribe sets eco rules


BIACOU, Timor-Leste — In October of 2012, 43-year-old Buru-Bara and four of his fellow villagers went to fish in the turquoise waters that break gently on the northern coast of Timor-Leste. They had a good catch that day, and on their way back home they sat down under an old tamarind tree, where they kindled a fire to grill some fish and started drinking palm wine.

“A few hours later, while leaving the place, we forgot to stamp out the fire,” Buru-Bara told Mongabay. “The fire soon spread to the tamarind tree and burned it to ashes.”

The burning of the tree, although unintentional, would cost the five men the equivalent of $60 each, about the average monthly wage for the country. The tree had been declared sacred, and damaging it was prohibited under tara bandu, a customary law common to Timor-Leste’s various indigenous ethnic groups, who collectively refer to themselves as Maubere.

A few days after the incident, at a gathering in the churchyard of their village of Biacou, village leaders handed down the penalty. The five men unhesitatingly paid the fine, Buru-Bara said, because violating tara bandu is sacrilegious in Maubere tradition. “It’s a grave disrespect to Rai na’in [a land spirit] and the community, and one must redress it at any cost,” said Buru-Bara.

Tara bandu was outlawed during the two and a half decades of Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. But since the country became independent in 2002, it has been reviving the tradition in an attempt to control the exploitation of its marine and terrestrial resources. There are signs tara bandu has had a positive effect on the mangroves, forests and reefs of Biacou. However, not everyone there is happy with the outcome because some people’s livelihoods have been adversely affected: reef gleaners, salt makers, and fishermen. Even so, for many in Biacou and elsewhere in the fledgling nation, the customary law of tara bandu offers a path toward developing a sustainable, community-led model of natural resource use.

Canoe fishers in the district of Viqueque, Timor-Leste. Image by Alex Tilley/WorldFish.

A native natural resources management system

Pedro Rodrigues, a Maubere tribesman and fisheries expert with Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), advised Biacou’s community leaders in formulating tara bandu. He described the law as a customary natural resources management system that “governs the relationships among humans and between human and non-human entities — seas, forests, spaces, objects, animals, crops, the state.”

Tara bandu can include a wide array of restrictions, as determined by a particular community. It could prohibit access to certain spaces, fishing in particular spots, catching particular species, cutting down particular trees, or for that matter damaging anything declared lulik, which means sacred in the Tetum and Kemak languages. The system is localized, so places and objects identified as lulik and accorded protection vary from village to village depending on local needs, preferences and beliefs.

“In our village, tara bandu rules prohibit cutting down of tamarind, cajeput and sandalwood trees, catching and killing of sea turtles, and causing damage to the coral reefs in the Tasi Feto waters,” said Buru-Bara, using the local term, meaning “mother sea,” for the waters off Timor-Leste’s northern shore.

Some 30 kilometers (18 miles) off that shore, the village of Suco Makili on Atauro Island has its own tara bandu. “We’ve a belief that our avó feto [grandmother, ancestor] was a descendent of turtle. So we consider sea turtles lulik and our tara bandu prohibits catching or killing of sea turtles,” Zanuari Carvalho, a 65-year-old local fisherman, told Mongabay.

Local leaders display a special object called a horok, often a bamboo post wrapped in traditional Maubere cloth and coconut leaves, to notify locals and passersby that a tara bandu restriction is in place. Violations incur fines that the communities determine when they declare tara bandu at a special ceremony.

Maubere elders participate in a ceremony establishing tara bandu regulations to protect community-owned forests in Suco Hera, a village about 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Biacou. Image by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya.

Outlawed, then revived

Tara bandu was more or less in practice across Timor-Leste well into the sunset of Portuguese colonial rule, which permitted indigenous laws and rituals so long as they didn’t affront government interests. On Dec. 7, 1975, nine days after the revolutionary Fretilin movement made a unilateral declaration of independence from the Portuguese, Indonesian armed forces occupied the island and soon banned any Maubere practice that involved people gathering, including tara bandu declaration ceremony.

“They replaced the traditional-customary mechanisms of regulating natural resources with the Indonesian national forestry system,” said Rodrigues. It proved to be a disaster, he said, as Indonesian forestry officials had a poor understanding of Timor-Leste’s ecosystems.

By many accounts, the Indonesian occupation brought ruinous plunder of the country’s precious forests and exceptionally rich marine resources. Over the last decade of Indonesian rule, deforestation in the western part of the country was around 18 percent, potentially in part due to logging by Indonesian companies, according to a 2004 study in the journal Natural Resources Forum. The Indonesian occupation authorities opened the sea to large-scale commercial exploitation, bringing in fleets that employed destructive fishing techniques, damaging coral reefs and other marine ecosystems, and overfished, according to Rodrigues.

When the Indonesian occupation forces withdrew in 1999, they left behind a trail of destruction. “The Indonesians removed and burned down vast patches of forests across the island. They bombed the coral reefs and the coastal fisheries,” said Carvalho. “I still remember the deeply disturbing sight of thousands of dead fish washing ashore after such bombings.”

Since Timor-Leste attained independence in 2002, local and national efforts have been underway to figure out how to sustainably tap the country’s marine resources. Reviving tara bandu in coastal Maubere communities like Biacou, Manatuto, and Atauro Island has been part of that. Tara bandu has yet to receive formal legal sanction under the Timor-Leste Constitution, but the government encourages local communities and NGOs to use it to improve natural-resource management, according to Rodrigues. “The country has yet a long way to go in making the formal justice system available in the rural areas,” and tara bandu helps fill the gap, he said.

Buru-Bara’s village of Biacou practiced tara bandu until Indonesian occupation authorities banned it in late 1975. Nearly 40 years later, in 2012, the village reintroduced tara bandu, expanding its domain to focus on the sea.

“Before the Indonesians came, our forefathers practiced tara bandu to save forests and water sources,” said Sergio Pedroco, Biacou’s chief at the time. “However, they didn’t include marine resources, coral reefs, and mangroves under tara bandu protection. But the present tara bandu declares coral reefs, sea turtles, and mangroves in the Tasi Feto waters lulik and protected.”

Maps show the island of Timor, shared by Timor-Leste to the east and Indonesia to the west, and the location of Biacou in Timor-Leste. Maps courtesy of Google Maps.

Toward a new marine economy

An island nation of 1.29 million people, Timor-Leste sits in the heart of the Coral Triangle, a 6-million-square-kilometer (2.32-million-square-mile) area of the western Pacific Ocean endowed with the world’s richest marine biodiversity, according to the NGO World Wide Fund for Nature. The area is home to about three-quarters of the world’s coral species, more than one-third of coral reef fish species, and six of the world’s seven marine turtle species. It also sustains at least 120 million people, 2.25 million of whom are fishers.

A 2016 survey by the NGO Conservation International found that Atauro Island has the most biodiverse reef fish community in the world. Mangrove forests dot the country’s rocky coralline coasts, providing essential services, such as filtering pollutants, providing critical habitat for some coral reef fish species, sequestering carbon andprotecting against rising seas and tsunamis.

A spearfisher fishing on the reef near the village of Suco Adara on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. In 2016, the village enacted a tara bandu designating no-fishing zones. Image by Alex Tilley/WorldFish.

With Timor-Leste’s oil reserves, the nation’s main source of income, predicted to be exhausted in a few years, many think the country could find an alternative economic lifeline in its breathtakingly beautiful seascapes.

“The coral reefs and marine resources under Timor-Leste waters, if managed properly, have tremendous potential to fuel a sustainable marine ecotourism industry in the country,” said Alex Tilley, a British fisheries biologist with the Malaysia-based NGO WorldFish in Timor-Leste.

Rodrigues and others see the revival of tara bandu as a way to make that vision a reality. “Coastal communities here have been tapping the Triangle’s resources for ages without causing damage to the ecosystem,” said Rodrigues. “Now, they’re also harnessing tara bandu in a bid to better manage their marine resources.”

A sea star in the waters of Timor-Leste. Image by Johannes Zielcke via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Tara bandu to rehabilitate the sea

Six years have passed since Biacou revived tara bandu. Four hours’ drive from the capital city of Dili, the village sits in a valley located right in the coastal fringe of forest. To the north a mangrove forest divides it from the Tasi Feto waters; to the south squat the Biacou Mountains.

Villagers make their living from a mix of fishing, reef gleaning, salt production and crop and livestock farming. Fish is both a major source of food and the community’s primary source of income. There are 44 registered fishing boats in the village, most of them small canoes for solo fishing, per records from the country’s National Directorate of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

Local tara bandu law specifically protects coral reefs, sea turtles and mangroves, and prohibits fish bombing, fish poisoning and interference in certain saline areas. “The coastal and marine resources are critical for the livelihoods of the villagers,” said Pedroco, the former village chief. “Tara bandu has helped us sustainably exploit our fish stock,” he added, in particular by curtailing villagers’ practice of fish bombing and poisoning, which harm the ecosystem.

In early 2012, Biacou’s traditional leaders, in consultation with government and United Nations fisheries experts, conducted a survey identifying certain spots in the Tasi Feto where tara bandu enacted later that year restricted certain fishing activities and declared no-fishing zones. “These no-fishing zones have allowed fish regeneration and are thus keeping a balance in the fish stock in the coastal fisheries,” said Rodrigues, at the time an employee of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Fisheries Livelihood Programfor South and Southeast Asia (RFLP).

One of the no-fishing zones faces Alor Island, which the community considers especially sacred. “We believe a lulik ancestral stone with magical powers from the neighboring island of Alor lies in the bottom of the sea in that area. Our tara bandu law strictly prohibits fishing over it,” said Pedroco.

For Pedroco and Rodrigues, Biacou’s tara bandu has been a clear success. Rodrigues said that in 2014 he and his colleagues from the RFLP informally assessed the tara bandu’s effect in Biacou with a study that primarily relied on changes observed by villagers. It found an overall positive impact on coastal and forest resources, recording growth of mangroves and forests, Rodrigues said.

Pedroco echoed these claims: “As a result of tara bandu restrictions, the mangrove area has grown denser than earlier, less coral is extracted for the production of lime than before, and the forests around the village are thriving.”

Vegetation extends between the coastal mangrove forest and the sea near Biacou. Image by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya.

Economic ripples

However, not everybody in Biacou is so positive. Village residents told Mongabay that since the revival of tara bandu, the average monthly household expenditure has risen by $8 to $10, as they must now procure firewood, lime, fruits, and seafood from outside the protected areas. Moreover, they said that tara bandu has adversely affected people who make their living from the sea, pushing some to turn to farming, animal rearing or temporary construction work in urban centers away from home.

Fishermen, for instance, have been forced farther out to sea, as the tara bandu restricts fishing near the shore — a riskier prospect that took some getting used to, according to Fernando da Costa, a fisherman in Biacou.

Da Costa said he hopes once the fish stocks near shore are rebuilt, restrictions on fishing them will be relaxed by convening a nahe biti, a traditional ceremony of reconciliation and reconsideration, on the current tara bandu rules. Before that can happen, however, leaders must verify that the stocks have recovered, and they have yet to do so. “I just hope the wise village elders involved in enacting tara bandu will deliberate on this soon,” Da Costa said.

Men and women fish together in Suco Adara on Atauro Island, where a tara band has been in place since 2016. Image by David Mills/WorldFish.

Salt makers also grumble about the tara bandu because it prohibits gathering the firewood they use, to boil saltwater and separate the salt from it, in nearby mangroves and coastal forests. Now they must travel beyond the protected area for firewood.

“Once the tara bandu law came, the work’s become too heavy,” a 64-year old salt maker from Biacou named Celestina da Costa told Mongabay. “So much so that at times I feel like giving up. Many of my neighbors have already given up salt making,” she said.

Reef gleaners are also finding it harder to earn a living. Across the country, the gleaners, mainly women, walk out to a reef at low tide to gather edibles and chunks of coral. They wrap the latter in palm leaves and then dry over a fire until it disintegrates into lime powder, an indispensable ingredient in the Maubere’s beloved areca-nut and betel-leaf chew.

Crucially, one of the aims of Biacou’s tara bandu is to protect the reef situated right in front of the village, and gleaning there is now prohibited. That has strained the personal finances of women like Melinda da Costa, a 42-year-old reef gleaner who told Mongabay she not only lost her modest yet meaningful income from lime, but now must purchase what her family consumes.

Even so, esteem for Maubere tradition seems to outweigh such hardships for Melinda da Costa and others.

“We have to conserve the reef as the tara bandu mandates so. We can’t offend Rai na’in and the village community,” she said.

Maubere elders in the village of Suco Fatumea draft tara bandu regulations to protect local forests and water sources. Image by Egrilio Ferreira Vincente.

Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya is an independent journalist based in Assam, northeastern India. In addition to Mongabay, he has written for The Diplomat, Buzzfeed, Down To Earth, The NewsLens InternationalEarthIsland Journal, and other publications.

Editor’s note: Reporting for this story was funded by a Reporting Right Livelihood grant from the Sweden-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation in 2017.

Correction 10/31/18: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the village of Biacou by its former name, Suco Biacou. Suco is an administrative term referring to a village-like locality; Biacou was recently incorporated into a neighboring suco and lost that official designation. We regret the error.  


Bouma, G.A., Kobryn, H.T. (2004). Change in vegetation cover in East Timor, 1989–1999. Natural Resources Forum28:1–12.

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