Lessons in natural resource management from Timor-Leste's ancient cooperative tradition

*Tara Bandu has been performed in Timor-Leste for many generations

- In a coastal village in Timor-Leste, a ritual leader confers with the ancestral spirits at the foot of a tree while the Secretary of State for Fisheries, local government authorities, and fishermen look on. Every participant is given a pinang leaf to mark their presence here, and to remind them of what has been cemented: collective decisions on access to fishing areas, land, and forest resources. Called Tara Bandu, this ceremony has been performed in Timor-Leste for many generations. It is a traditional means of regulating interactions between people, and between people and the environment - particularly access to and distribution of natural resources.

This time, the state is represented, and the decisions have been written into the record on paper and online. These updates were organised with the collaboration of the Spanish-funded, FAO-implemented Regional Fisheries Livelihoods Programme (RFLP). The local people believe that the tradition carries lessons in collective planning, balanced distribution, and respect for shared resources. All these are central values of the cooperative model, which has arrived in the country much more recently.

A decade of experimentation
Timor-Leste's first decade of independence from Indonesia has been a time of experimentation; as a new economy is built and the country finds its own way, cooperatives have been one successful path in this. Cooperativa Café Timor, a national organisation of coffee cooperatives, is the second largest exporter in the country, and was recently visited by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But success in the global coffee market has not extended to other sectors, such as fisheries, says RFLP's Enrique Alonso. "In the fisheries sector the establishment of cooperatives has been very challenging. These were formed primarily to receive assets from the state and development agencies - boats, engines, nets. Once support was withdrawn or the policy changed they lost their aim." "The few fisheries cooperatives that have succeeded are those that had a strong historical background, or those whose structures of decision were in line with the local social structures, strongly rooted in the relations of sociality framed by the lineage system," Alonso says.

Traditions in regulation
It is these experiences with cooperatives that led RFLP to recognise the importance of indigenous institutions such as Tara Bandu. Now the programme has moved into helping communities revive and record their customary laws. Many Tara Bandu apply to fishing, forests or water. After the country's independence from Indonesia, prior to when the tradition was prohibited, the first new ceremony was held in 2003 to protect the source of the Irabin River. Since then, multiple government departments have taken an interest in incorporating Tara Bandu, and many communities have performed the rites again.

The people of Beacou incorporated many decisions into their ceremony, including restrictions on fishing in an over-exploited reef, a ban on disturbing a turtle nesting site, and the prohibition of poison and explosives in fishing. It also commands the preservation and fair use of mangrove, sandalwood and tamarind forests, and forbids building on a saline habitat used by the whole village.

RFLP has helped draft a written version of the Tara Bandu, reviewed by local leaders and elders, community members, and the Rai Nain kaer bua malus, the ritual holder of laws and traditions. This document, along with a community-made map, is available through the National Fisheries Statistics System.

Ceremonial protections
The elaborate ceremony was performed this August. "The ritual involves requesting the approval of the spirits to endorse the regulation that was discussed by the community members," says RFLP's Pedro Rodrigues. "It is considered that the spirits are the ones who will take care of the regulation and the good use of resources."

Alonso believes that this tradition shares the cooperative principle of redistribution, both of common resources and of penalties. "If someone breaks a rule, they have to bring food and meat to be offered to the ancestors and eaten in a communal party," he says. "This is also about redistribution of animal proteins, in a country where malnutrition remains a challenge."

By recording Tara Bandu and spreading the documents among authorities and neighboring villages, RFLP is working towards formal recognition of these community decisions. They hope that this will prevent abuse by any of the authorities involved. At the same time, the community reserves the right to update the content every year.

Learning from Beacou
RFLP is currently working on documentation projects in a number of other villages, and Alonso believes that the FAO programme is learning a lot from these communities, which he hopes will guide future projects.

"It has many linkages with the rationale of the cooperatives but bases its roots in ancient practices," he says. "It's not formally a cooperative; Tara Bandu is aimed at resource management but also at ensuring a level of redistribution in resource exploitation among community members. Curiously it is a very innovative approach, with a base in traditional practices and local structures of decision."

Cooperatives, a new idea in comparison, need to fit in with such existing systems of access and understand the ways that producers already establish collective rules for sharing resources and benefits. But cooperatives can also be more than just joint economic ventures; like Tara Bandu, they can be collaborative projects to define, protect and create shared goods and goodwill.