Customary renewal in post-occupation East Timor and the construction of the future as a ‘cultural fact’

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Date(s) - 09/11/2016
1:00 pm - 2:30 pm

Menzies Building 11 4th Floor, North Wing, Room N402


Susanna Barnes, Anthropology, Monash University

One of the striking features of independence era East Timor has been the widespread revitalisation and recalibration of customary beliefs and practices. What is to be made of this process? What, if anything, can it tell us about people’s aspirations and desires for the future? In this paper, I take up the call for a better anthropological understanding of the construction of the future as a ‘cultural fact’ and the implications of this for people’s ‘capacity to aspire’ – their ability to mobilise resources in order to make strategic decisions about their future. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Babulo suku, Uato Lari sub-district I suggest that acts of customary renewal represent a cultural response to the uncertainties and opportunities created by independence. This ‘cultural’ response is not motivated by a desire to re-create the past in the present but rather it represents an attempt to draw on the past in order to negotiate the future. The renewal of customary beliefs and practices reveals a continued commitment to a shared cultural framework and shared vision for what constitutes a ‘good life’. However, acts of customary renewal are also sites of friction where status and political influence is affirmed and contested, and consensus is negotiated through rhetoric and performance.


Susanna Barnes is a PhD candidate at Monash University and recently submitted her PhD thesis entitled ‘Customary renewal and the pursuit of power and prosperity in post-occupation East Timor: a case study from Babulo, Uato-Lari’. Her research interests are East Timor ethnography, comparative Austronesian studies, customary land and natural resource governance, ritual and religion, and customary health and healing practices.