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Conservation

Ancient traditions protect the environment in East Timor

Indepedent since 2002, East Timor is one of the world's newest nations. But when it comes to protecting the environment, it has a unique and ancient tradition to draw upon - the practice of tara bandu.

Tara bandu ritual performed in East Timor

Villagers take part in a ritual of catching fish as part of a tara bandu ceremony in Irabere village, East Timor

In the village of Irabere, in the remote highlands of the Uato-Carbau district of East Timor, a group of around 40 villagers wades through a river catching fish. Using small nets cast by hand, they make their way upstream in the shadow of the surrounding hills. Joining them, a handful of energetic local children play in the water, leaping at the chance to untangle a fish caught flailing in the nets.

The scene appears ordinary enough, but in fact it is part of "tara bandu," a three-day ritual to protect the river's ecosystem.

"Tara bandu is a practical environmental governance by our ancestors," explains Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, advisor to the state secretary for environment, and co-founder of Haburas, one of East Timor's leading environmental organizations.

Do Amaral de Carvalho been at the forefront of combining traditional practices like tara bandu with government-led environmental initiatives.

"Tara bandu uses local knowledge of conservation and maximizes the social capital of villagers," he says. "It strengthens our community bonds, and also helps to protect the environment.

Armindo da Silva, Irabere village chief, Uato-Carbau district, East Timor

Armindo da Silva, Irabere's village chief, is known as the Crocodile King

"For example, if a community has a lagoon - an important habitat for fish and other aquatic species - the community will protect that lagoon with tara bandu rituals for a period of time to let nature have time to restore itself... This will increase the amount of fish they have, and also distribute those resources to [the whole] community participating in that event."

Concerned by overfishing, the village of Irabere has decided to protect the river for the next five years. Small-scale subsistence fishing will be allowed, but only with permission of the village elders. Large nets and commercial fishing will be banned.

Tara bandu protection means there will be penalties for anyone attempting to break the rules. This could mean paying a fine in money or animals. But tara bandu also invokes the spirit world, so the consequences may not only be material, but also supernatural.

A ritual sacrifice

Early on the third and final day of the ritual, with mist still rising from hills and fields, a procession of over 100 villagers heads into the forest. A troupe of drummers wearing ceremonial head-dress sets the pace, led the village chief. Arriving in a small forest clearing, the procession stops at a large thatched hut raised on stilts, known as an Uma Lulik.

Tara bandu ritual performed in East Timor

Villagers look on as a buffalo is ritually slaughtered ​as part of the tara bandu ceremony

Deeply sacred, the Uma Lulik - or Spirit House - is a center of customary belief and practice. Close by, a buffalo awaits sacrifice with its horns tied between two trees and its eyes bandaged.

"We must spill blood for the tara bandu to have any meaning or effect," explains village chief Armindo de Silva.

Known locally as the Crocodile King, 65-year old de Silva is believed to have the power to command and control crocodiles. He certainly commands enormous respect from his community.

While government dignitaries watch, de Silva leads the ceremony.

"The whole village helps to pay for the buffalo. The government is also now helping us to pay for the ceremonies," de Silva explains. "Before, under occupation, we could not even carry out tara bandu ceremonies."

Occupied by Indonesia for 24 years, and by Portugal for over 400 years, East Timor gained its independence in 2002. With a population of 1.1 million people, it remains one of the world's newest nations, still in the process of building national institutions. Independence has allowed many once-suppressed traditional practices to flourish, aided by a newly supportive state.

"Tara bandu gains its strength from the ancestors," says da Silva. "This ritual today will protect the fish, but also protect us from crocodile attacks. And it will help us to remember our culture and keep it strong."

A village feast

By early afternoon the buffalo has been sacrificed and the meat cooked on an open fire to be shared among the whole village. The offal is given to the river as an offering to the crocodiles.

Tara bandu ritual performed in East Timor

Villagers present ritual offerings.

Later, the government representatives give speeches, before the evening gives way to singing and dancing. Women link arms, their voices raised in rhythmic call-and-answer.

On of the world's most mountainous countries, East Timor faces many environmental challenges, from land degradation to water shortages, overfishing and overhunting. But the government is keen to support local traditions that help to protect the environment.

Do Amaral de Carvalho argues that rituals like tara bandu can be an important resource, at the intersection of the Western development models and some of the tiny mountainous state's oldest ritual beliefs.

"In Timor we have many traditional people with conservative values - they keep hold of these but they're not closed to new ideas," he says.

"Government and development agencies who are keen to introduce new values need to understand socio-cultural context, and work together with communities to implement them."