[TimorLesteStudies] submission

Christopher Shepherd cshepherd12 at gmail.com
Sun Apr 3 15:35:08 EST 2011

Hello, could I please submit the following to your online newsletter.
Kind regards, Chris Shepherd (anthropology ANU).

Subject: Development comes to rural Timor-Leste (East Timor) with big ideas

Shepherd, C. J. 2009. Participation, authority, and distributive
equity in East Timorese development. East Asian Science, Technology
and Society: An International Journal 3: 315-342.

After its violent escape from a quarter-century of Indonesian rule in
1999, the new nation of Timor-Leste (before 1974 Portuguese Timor)
became the ground for an unparalleled concentration of ‘development
industry’ specialists determined to shape the country according to the
most modern ideas of how development should take place. The rural
uplands of the island’s interior, where diverse people lived mainly by
shifting cultivation and extensive pastoralism, experienced a number
of interventions. In a recent paper, four of these interventions are
discussed by Australian National University anthropologist Chris
Shepherd, who shows how questions of participation, authority and
equity have been very variably approached. One project involved almost
literally moving an Australian dairy to Timor; one the setting up of
an enclave of industrial agriculture, and one the introduction of
improved germplasm under tightly-controlled experimental conditions.
The fourth sought to adapt old Timorese cultural-management practices
to help in nothing less than the replacement of shifting by organic
permanent agriculture on terraces, and free-range grazing by
stall-feeding. We focus on the second and fourth in this short

The enclave of industrial agriculture is a hydroponic greenhouse set
up to grow capsicum and tomatoes for buyers in the capital Dili,
supplemented by outdoor gardens for a range of vegetables, all set
among the unchanged subsistence crop and livestock farming of a
community of some 90 families. Only a small group of families was
selected for participation and for a year they provided their labour
unpaid. They had to accept a considerable number of new rules. When
the prospect of real profits began to emerge serious problems were
faced. It had been agreed that 20% of the profits would go to the
community as a whole, but how were the profits to be determined? Who
would run the project? A wholesaler who bought and delivered the
produce might run the enterprise, or the community might own it. The
project decided to follow the latter approach, but who then would
manage it? Although the participants included village leaders who had
been trained, no-one was skilled in management. The widening
inequalities within the community had not been resolved. The
participants wanted the agency to continue to handle management,
resolve technical and social problems and continue to supply inputs.
Sensibly in Shepherd’s opinion, the farmers declined to take
ownership; indeed they saw advantages in not doing so.

The ambitious fourth project faced wider issues of land degradation
and therefore also of inter-generational equity. It also had wider
territorial span. Timor has a long dry season and over centuries has
been largely deforested. To reverse degradation it seemed necessary
that use of fire be outlawed. But first it was necessary to offer an
alternative, and one was provided by a Canadian NGO. The core task
involved labour-intensive manual terracing of degraded hillsides and
the planting of tree-, staple- and fodder-crops in the terraces, from
which livestock were excluded. An appeal was made for social
responsibility toward sustainability of practices and livelihoods. It
had significant success with some.

To make the bans on fire and free-range grazing work, the NGO revived
a neglected traditional ritual practice under which local law
regulating farming and dispute settlement had been formalized every
few years. It involved an animal sacrifice, the bones displayed on a
cross to mark the authority of spiritual ancestors who would punish
transgressors fiercely. The NGO involved the Catholic Church in
blessing this ritual, thereby also legitimizing the modern addition of
a book of regulations and penalties. Even so, a significant minority
of farmers – especially those without land close to their homes, with
few cattle and reluctant to undertake the hard work of terracing –
continued to resist. Fires were still set but at a distance where the
perpetrators could not readily be identified. Another division, albeit
not apparently acrimonious as in the case of the greenhouse, had been
created between those who participated, and those who did not.

All development initiatives in Timor-Leste have come from outside.
After the cultural and political repression of the Indonesian period
(even though it did bring some material benefits) the massive and
idealistic new wave of interventions has been welcomed. But it has not
been without problems. Many Timorese have not liked being told what to
do by the developers; those who did gain some professional standing in
the Indonesian period now found themselves asked simply to mediate
between foreign specialists and the local beneficiaries; there has
been a paucity of consultation. Divisions have been created between
those who have learned to talk the language of development and have
prospered, and those whose embrace of modernity has been more
selective or less rewarding. Efforts to hybridize old cultural
institutions, as in the sustainability project, have encountered
skepticism from some quarters and great optimism from others.

One decade is a short period and Shepherd does not offer any final
judgments. He seeks a broader approach to central questions about who
is authorized to define tradition and modernity, and how participation
can become a true union of interests in the pursuit of progress with

To communicate with the author, and/or to request a single copy (hard
or electronic) of the paper, write to Dr Chris Shepherd at
chris.shepherd at anu.edu.au

Shepherd, C. J. 2009. Participation, authority, and distributive
equity in East Timorese development. East Asian Science, Technology
and Society: An International Journal 3: 315-342.


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