[TimorLesteStudies] New article

Christopher Shepherd cshepherd12 at gmail.com
Fri Jul 8 15:22:05 EST 2011

New article on rural development in East Timor by Chris Shepherd and
Andrew McWilliam

Ethnography, Agency, and Materiality: Anthropological Perspectives on
Rice Development in East Timor".East Asian Science, Technology and
Society: an International Journal.. 5 (2): 189-215

To request single copies of this article, write to Andrew McWilliam
(andrew.mcwilliam at anu.edu.au) or Chris Shepherd
(chris.shepherd at anu.edu.au).


Since East Timor’s independence as Timor Leste, the new nation has
experienced an unparalleled concentration of ‘development industry’
specialists and donors determined to shape the country according to
differing ideas of how development should proceed. Underlying this
variety of styles is a familiar distinction between approaches that
seek to impose change from without versus ones that foster change from
within. But if this distinction is to be instructive, we need to see
how each is  produced in practice.

In a recent paper, Australian National University anthropologists
Chris Shepherd and Andrew McWilliam contrast two examples of rice
development from Timor Leste. The first scheme, initiated in
2008-2009, trialed and promoted the adoption of a technology package
based on hybrid rice, mechanization, and chemical inputs within a
development enclosure in the village of Tapo-Memo. The second focuses
on the ‘Seeds of Life’ (SoL) programme led by theAustralian Centre for
International Agricultural Research, which has been testing
open-pollinated rice varieties in a large number of on-farm
demonstration trials across six districts between 2006 and 2010.  Both
interventions have been managed by the national government. Each
deployed technologies that were ‘external’ to the farmers’ world,
relied extensively on scientific networks and were executed via a
clear demarcation of roles between extension agents and participating
farmers. Yet the way the various elements of the interventions were
assembled has produced markedly contrasting farmer engagements.

Using three different anthropological perspectives Shepherd and
McWilliam lead the reader through a nuanced account of the two
interventions. The Tapo-Memo project is a joint initiative of the East
Timorese and Indonesian Ministries of Agriculture, and is directed to
the market-oriented food production sector. The project drew on
advanced hybrid technologies and high input management techniques
supervised by Indonesian extension experts. In its first year, farmers
were offered USD100 incentive payments to work collectively and ensure
regular weeding and crop protection. An area of 200 hectares of
demonstration gardens was carefully fenced, tilled, fertilized, sown,
weeded and sprayed with pesticides. The resulting harvest produced
more than three times that of local varieties and, with much
enthusiasm, the local media highlighted the prospects of an expanded
farmer uptake in the following year, with generalised yields as high
as 8 and 12 tons/ha. These expectations did not eventuate and the
project has struggled to reproduce its initial success.

Following a period of adaptive trials under Timorese conditions of
seed germplasm sourced from IRRI, the Seeds of Life initiative
consciously limited its technological input to on-farm trials of high
yielding open pollinated rice varieties and actively encouraged
participating farmers to maintain their existing farming practices.
Accompanying technological improvements were downplayed in the face of
reported farmer resistance to fertilizers and pesticides, as well as
unreliable extension and input supply chains. With yields approaching
5 tonnes/ha and preferred Timorese eating qualities of softness,
oiliness, and fragrance, the new ‘nakroma’ seed was well received by
local farmers. Women reported that the new rice variety required no
additional preparation time for family meals.  Nakroma has
subsequently become a prominent feature of local rice production
especially in areas where agroecological conditions have proved
particularly favourable.

These comparative interventions draw attention to the distinctive
approaches and technologies deployed. The point is not that SoL was
inherently successful whereas the Tapo-Memo project was not. Each
intervention presented its own range of possibilities and constraints.
The Tapo-Memo project required more radical adjustment of existing
farming practice, including group farming methods, highly capitalized
inputs and chemical agents, tractor tillage, monetary incentives and
an openness to specialized extension. In contrast, SoL’s approach was
delinked from a complex technological package, relied minimally on
outside expertise, availed itself of existing networks, sought not to
create new groups, offered no incentives, and presented no more than a
few square meters of risk to farmers. This meant that there was
considerably less scope for conflict, untoward appropriation, or
subsequent discontent. In fact, by limiting the very range of what had
to be negotiated and/or appropriated, the SoL approach generated
conditions that 1) enabled farmers to trial seed as part of a
data-collection regime, and 2) left farmers free to adopt the trialed
seed if they felt like it.

As well as exploring rice intervention from three anthropological
perspectives, the authors introduce some conceptual material from
science studies. Central to their analysis is the idea of ‘boundary
objects’. These at once material and conceptual objects, they say, are
negotiated across social worlds (development actors and farmers) and
have the qualities of both flexibility and robustness such that
cooperative work can take place even if the participants have
different approaches. The SoL program, it appears, had plasticity and
robustness in all the right places allowing for cooperation among the
parties and a relatively successful farmer appropriation. While the
Tapo-Memo scheme also had qualities of plasticity and robustness, it
had too much flexibility in some places (use of money incentives was
inappropriate) and too much robustness in others (the  technological
packages required disciplined implementation in order to work).
These weaknesses jeopardized the success of the project. The authors
conclude that analysis of boundary objects may prove to be a useful
conceptual tool in understanding the dynamics of different types of
necessarily standardized interventions and how these interventions are
appropriated by farmers whose agricultural practices are highly


More information about the Easttimorstudies mailing list