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Timor-Leste: With sacrifice and ceremony, tribe sets eco rules

A map of Biacou (also spelled Beacou) made by residents of the village shows the location of various protected sites. Click here to enlarge. Image courtesy of RFLP/Sergio Pedroco.

A map of Biacou (also spelled Beacou) made by residents of the village shows the location of various protected sites. Click here to enlarge. Image courtesy of RFLP/Sergio Pedroco.

  • On an August morning in 2012, about 150 men, women and children gathered at a sacred spot in the village of Biacou, in northern Timor-Leste. With sacrifices of a goat and a pig and the blessing of the land and sea spirits, the community inaugurated the village’s tara bandu, a customary law of the indigenous Maubere that governs how people interact with the environment.
  • Tara bandu was outlawed under the Indonesian occupation that lasted from 1975 until 1999. Since then, Maubere communities across the country have been bringing tara bandu back to life as a way to guide more sustainable use of their local natural resources.
  • In Biacou, at least, the tradition appears to be resonating with residents as there has been just one violation of the tara bandu in the six years since its inauguration.
  • This is the third 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: Maubere tribes revive customary law to protect the ocean
Timor-Leste: Q&A with a Maubere fisherman on reviving depleted fisheries

 

On the morning of Aug. 20, 2012, about 150 men, women and children gathered in the village of Biacou, in northern Timor-Leste. They assembled at a sacred spot called Oho-no-rai to take part in a ceremony inaugurating the village’s tara bandu, a customary law of the island nation’s indigenous tribes, collectively called Maubere, that governs how people interact with their local environment. A dozen men clad in traditional sarongs and feathered headdresses stood around a wooden pole to which a goat was tied, while the rest sat in small circles nearby, watching.

Francisco Talimeta, the village’s chief ritual authority, sprinkled water on the goat and uttered some prayers. He then killed the animal by piercing its heart with a sharp iron spear. The sacrifice triggered muted applause and cheers among the crowd: the spilling of blood made the place lulik,or sacred, and enabled communication with the ancestral spirits. Talimeta scrutinized the goat’s viscera for signs that Rai na’in and Tasi na’in, the Maubere spirit of the land and the spirit of the sea, respectively, approved of the village’s intent to renew the tara bandu law. Finding favorable evidence, he communicated directly with the spirits and then offered them food, areca leaves, betel nut and palm wine in thanks.

Immediately afterward, Talimeta sacrificed a pig in a similar manner. Once again, blood was spilled and the crowd cheered. Talimeta found signs that the land and sea spirits approved in the pig’s viscera, too, and then thanked them again and made offerings.

The sacrifices and invocation of Rai na’in and Tasi na’in marked an important moment in the history of Biacou, and perhaps of Timor-Leste itself: the revival of the local tara bandu after nearly four decades of disuse, primarily as a result of being outlawed under the Indonesian occupation that lasted from 1975 until 1999. Since then, Maubere communities across the country have been bringing tara bandu back to life as a way to guide more sustainable use of their local environments. The efforts have the blessing of the central government, which promotes sustainable development but has few resources to enact and enforce environmental laws itself.

Top map shows the island of Timor, shared by Timor-Leste to the east and Indonesia to the west. Map above shows the location of Biacou in Timor-Leste. Maps courtesy of Google Maps.

Although the ritual sacrifices and invocation of the spirits were the emotional and spiritual apex of the inauguration of Biacou’s new tara bandu, the proceedings had begun hours earlier. They started with a welcoming of the baikana, important invitees including officials from Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the village chief and other local and regional political authorities, the local Catholic priest, representatives of the police and the military, and officers of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Regional Fisheries Livelihood Program for South and Southeast Asia (RFLP), who had advised Biacou’s leaders in formulating the regulations.

Villagers draped traditional woven cloths around the baikanas’ shoulders and paraded them to a special tent to great applause from the crowd. Timor-Leste’s national flag fluttered everywhere; betel and cigarettes were being passed out; and printed copies of the tara bandu regulations sat on tables before the baikana. Music and singing reverberated in the air.

Then village officials read the tara bandu regulations aloud and explained them to the crowd, first in Tetum, Timor-Leste’s national language, and then in Kemak, the local language. They were extensive, and the reading took about an hour. The villagers listened patiently.

The tara bandu protected sacred spaces, designating them off-limits, including Oho-no-rai, site of the inauguration ceremony; a spot in the in the village called Namon Matan for performing rituals when fish are scarce; an area called Lulin Bauk not far from a community-owned mangrove forest where the spirit of the rain dwells; and all sources of water near the village. They protected the village’s tamarind and cajeput trees, and its sandalwood and mangrove forests; cutting any of those trees was strictly prohibited. The tara bandu also protected coral reefs, sea turtles and salt production areas, and prohibited blast fishing and fish poisoning in the waters of the Wetar Strait, known locally as Tasi Feto, meaning “mother sea.”

Violating these restrictions would draw penalties in cash or consumables, such as meat, rice, areca nuts, betel leaves or cigarettes, worth up to $200 per person, depending on the gravity of the offense.

A map of Biacou (also spelled Beacou) made by residents of the village shows the location of various protected sites. Click here to enlarge. Image courtesy of RFLP/Sergio Pedroco.

Only once everyone had been informed about the new laws and the punishments for breaking them did Talimeta and his men enshrine them with the sacrifices and spiritual invocations. After the applause died down, Biacou’s leaders, government officials and officers of the RFLP signed an official copy of the tara bandu agreement as witnesses to the inauguration ceremony.

A group of men left the gathering to go mark the newly protected locations along the shore and around the village. At each location they erected a horok, a bamboo post wrapped in traditional Maubere cloth and coconut leaves, to notify people that a tara bandu restriction was in place.

Then it was time for the community lunch: rice, salad, vegetables, mutton curry, pork stew, plates of papaya and Timor-Leste’s ubiquitous ai-manus, a chunky, spicy, garlicky salsa. Throughout the ceremony and festivities the baikana periodically implored the villagers to uphold the tara bandu, reiterating their value in preserving the resources upon which the community’s livelihood depends. The ceremony ended with the village leaders thanking everyone for making the occasion successful.

“The revival of tara bandu is very significant for the community,” said Sergio Pedroco, Biacou’s chief at the time, who helped set up the tara bandu and organize the inauguration ceremony. “It is a tradition our forefathers used to practice to appease Rai na’in in order to secure his blessings to ensure judicious use of the natural resources. Now that we’ve been able to bring it back after decades, [it] makes me really happy.”

(Pedroco’s account of the 2012 ceremony, along with that of others in attendance, served as the basis for the description in this story.)

A cell-phone snapshot of village leaders gathering at a community hall after the 2012 ceremony inaugurating Biacou’s tara bandu. Image by Sergio Pedroco.

The spirits behind the ceremony

In Maubere belief, Rai na’in is the supreme spirit who owns the land. It is necessary to make offerings to him to secure his approval before undertaking any novel use of the land or its resources. Similarly, Tasi na’in is the spirit lord of the sea in Maubere belief. The indigenous peoples of Timor-Leste long preferred to live in the island’s mountainous highlands, but at some point some of them ventured down to settle along the coasts. When they did, they had to make offerings to appease Tasi na’in, according to folk narratives from across the country. Village elders in Biacou said that without the blessing of Tasi na’in, one cannot catch fish in the sea. Because the village intended to regulate marine resources for the first time with the new tara bandu, in addition to terrestrial resources, Tasi na’in had to be invoked along with Rai na’in, they said.

In Maubere society, nahe biti is the traditional method of reconciling disputes. The Tetum term means “rolling out the mat,” which alludes to community elders’ practice of sitting together to resolve disputes through arbitration and mediation. Biacou’s tara bandu regulations designated nahe biti as the method of reconciliation to be used in case of infractions.

So far there has been only one violation of Biacou’s tara bandu, according to Pedroco. In October 2012, just two months after the inauguration ceremony, five men accidentally burned down a tamarind tree in a corner of the village. A nahe biti was conducted in the village churchyard. Talimeta asked the spirits for forgiveness. Biacou’s leaders deliberated and handed down a collective penalty of $300, which the five men paid unhesitatingly, Pedroco said.

Maubere elders participate in a 2017  tara bandu ceremony in the village of Suco Hera,  about 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Biacou. Image by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya.
Maubere leaders of the village of Suco Hera prepare to carry out a ceremony to establish a local tara bandu in 2017. Image by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya.

If the residents of Biacou are complying with the tara bandu, it’s likely because the Maubere generally hold the traditional law in high esteem. “The tara bandu tradition is one of the defining parts of Maubere cultural and social life, which is why it survived even though it was banned by the Indonesians for decades,” said Manuel Maia, one of Biacou’s traditional leaders.

Now entering its seventh year, Biacou’s tara bandu is showing some positive results, according to locals and an informal assessment by RFLP. Fish stocks appear to be rebounding, and the mangroves and forests appear to be expanding — signs, it seems, that Rai na’in and Tasi na’in are pleased.

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

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