Tara bandu

Figure caption: The “kero” (ceremonial marker of tara bandu restrictions) sketched by Henry Forbes (1885, p. 472, cited by Casquilho & Martins, 2022).

Tara bandu is a traditional ceremonial system of customary justice and resource management. It is recognised as an effective method of local justice, making up the lack of an established state justice system in Timor-Leste since the country’s independence in 2002, and an important way for the ethnically diverse Indigenous peoples to practice self-determination and sustainable conservation of resources from which most people still take sustenance (Población et al., 2016). Despite this, the practice is yet to be codified in state law. It is rooted in local tradition or lisan and concerns natural resource management, relations among people and animals, and relations among people (Nascimento, n.d.).

Instigating and maintenance of tara bandu involves rituals facilitated by ritual speakers/leaders called lia na’in (custodian or words), with complex symbolic practices including sacrificial performance to ancestor spirits and the supernatural environment which manifests in things and places with sacred value or lulik (which can be compared in some respects the concept of tapu/tabu that occurs throughout Polynesia), and with which there are ancestral ties. Ritual leaders are roles handed down via an ancestral lineage, and these leaders mediate between the realms of humans and non-humans in local environmental and ancestral belief systems. Ritual leaders determine the sanctity, legitimacy, and enforcement of a tara bandu, which can be understood in the belief that tara bandu is enforced not by people but by spirits (including Rai na’in – spirit of the land, and Tasi na’in – spirit of the sea) and ancestors who afflict those who disrespect the tara bandu with various supernatural punishments or misfortunes (Bhattacharya, 2018c) alongside material and monetary fines (Ide et al., 2021).

In a very general summary (of what is a diverse and context driven, locally variable practice), the proceedings of a contemporary village level tara bandu might occour over several days as follows (Bhattacharya, 2018c; Ide et al., 2021; Población et al., 2016):

  • A tara bandu is drafted in collaboration with local and state authorities, including village chiefs, regional political authorities, ritual leaders, catholic leaders, and members of NGOs and conservation organisations. This process often includes reconciliation with the spirit realm. 
  • The tara bandu document details the reasons and regulations of the tara bandu which can include maintenance of lulik (sacred) places, maintenance of biodiversity, maintenance of resources, regulation of the value of products, preservation and recouperation of natural environments that provide ecosystem services, and resolution and prevention of conflicts among people. 
  • A public gathering assembly on a lulik (sacred) or other significant place occurs, wherein important visitors are welcomed in a ceremony involving dance and singing, and the consumption of food, betel and other commodities.
  • The tara bandu is read to the attendees including details of the regulations, their reasons, and the penalties for their violation.
  • Village leaders and ritual leaders enshrine the tara bandu with animal sacrifices and spiritual invocations. Following this the document is signed by officials.
  • Physical posts are erected and decorated with items that often denote the species, resource or object restricted (Casquilho & Martins, 2022).
  • Following the proceedings, a communal meal is held, sometimes including the meat of the sacrificed animals.
  • A tara bandu is reviewed and renewed at regular intervals, often annually.
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Name of NbS

Tara bandu

Type of NbS

Combination, Management / social / political, Ecosystem protection

Location

  • Periurban
  • Rural
  • Marine

Tara bandu is practiced throughout Timor-Leste, being revived following the country gaining independence from Indonesian occupation during which many Indigenous traditional practices were suppressed. It is a system based in Indigenous knowledge and therefore rooted in local communities, historically practiced mostly in rural areas across the country. It remains most prevalent in communities where people remain closely tied to the landscape and natural resources. Timor-Leste is home to many Indigenous ethnically and linguistically diverse groups, the largest being the Tetum people, whose language is lingua franca, and the language from which any local terms expressed in this text are taken. Distinctly local, the sets of rules that make up tara bandu often differ between districts and communities. Generally applied to the smallest administrative division of territory, known as suco, tara bandu systems can span several years.

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Figure caption: “Tara Bandu ceremony for the inauguration of village regulation” showing community members eating together, photo by Ministry of Agriculture and Fish, Timor-Leste. Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons.

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

Tara bandu is an Indigenous knowledge-based customary practice used to manage resources and facilitate justice processes. Timor-Leste is an ethnically diverse country, having received migratory waves of people from both Austronesian and Southeast Asian origin, the descendants of whom now comprise various Indigenous ethnic and linguistically distinct groups. Among the largest ethnic groups of Timor-Leste are Tetum, whose language is an official language, with others including Mambai, Tukudede, Galoli and Baikeno people (Timor-Leste, 2020). Despite the cultural diversity within Timor-Leste, tara bandu is practiced throughout the country, with varied local adaptions (such as between inland and coastal people). Enacted usually at a village or sub-village level, tara bandu is dependent on distinct local contexts, and spiritual and ancestral narratives.

 This spiritual component is called upon by ritual leaders (individuals considered capable of determining significance or signs and communications with the spiritual realm) to determine and regulate social and environmental relationships. Ide et al., (2021) describe the process of tara bandu as

“an elusive phenomenon for outsiders to work with. It is not just a narrow set of processes but a manifestation of a whole lifeworld … importantly, tara bandu is grounded in a broad local cosmological outlook that does not conceive of environmental and social relations as distinct realms and puts a strong emphasis on honouring and communicating with the ancestral realm.”

Tara bandu practices have seen a revival since the end of Indonesian occupation at the end of the 20th century, which had widely oppressed Indigenous practices and autonomy, particularly concerning resources (Ide et al., 2021). Interestingly, tara bandu in contemporary practice is a hybrid ceremonial practice containing components of ancient practices still conducted by Indigenous people, the influence of the Portuguese colonial bandos (orders) delivered during Portugese colonial rule in Timor (from the 1700’s until 1975), and catholic ritual components (Casquilho & Martins, 2022).

The efficacy of tara bandu, especially in conflict resolution can be correlated with its basis in the realm of spirits and ancestors. Ritual leaders mediate between the realms of the human and non-human to understand the signs from spirits such as Rai na’in (spirit of the land), and Tasi na’in (spirit of the sea), among others. There is a belief in environmental and other manifestations of ancestors in the natural world, such as sea turtles, which are lulik (sacred) to some groups. Lulik itself as a concept refers to a range of objects, geographic features, categories of food, people, forms of knowledge, behaviours, architecture, and periods of time (Casquilho & Martins, 2022). This way of understanding the relationship of humans to the natural world as ancestrally connected, demands an adherence to Indigenous customary laws derived in the spiritual and ancestral realm.

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Climate change benefits
  • Biomass cover loss
  • Loss of food production
  • Loss of other ecosystem services
  • Reduced soil quality
  • Reduced water quality
  • Indirect health, social, cultural climate change impacts

Tara bandu can serve as a form of natural resource management. It has been shown to be a successful mechanism to protect carbon stocks in agroforestry and regeneration projects (Cardinoza, 2005). It has historically been used to protect and maximise harvests, and to ensure sustainable fisheries practices and restore depleted fisheries (Bhattacharya, 2018b). The restrictions of tara bandu can be wide-reaching and recognise the reciprocity required between humans and the natural world, including the capability to create restrictions purely for the purpose of protecting ecosystem services. One example is the restriction of mangrove clearing to improve near-shore biodiversity and water quality (Población et al., 2016). Other climate change benefits that fall under the provision of tara bandu can include restrictions to slash and burn practices and indiscriminate livestock grazing (Cardinoza, 2005), and indirect impacts such as shifts to more sustainable fuel sources as historic sources are restricted (Población et al., 2016).

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Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • Biodiversity health and conservation
  • Economic and social development
  • Food security and quality
  • Human physical health and wellbeing
  • Rights / empowerment / equality / tino rangatiratanga

One of the key goals of tara bandu is improving or conserving biodiversity (Bhattacharya, 2018a; Cardinoza, 2005; Nascimento, n.d.; Población et al., 2016). In some cases, there is evidence of this occurring (Población et al., 2016), however, the relatively recent revival of the practice makes it hard to quantify increases in biodiversity attributed to it. By restricting access to certain resources tara bandu can prompt social and economic development (Cardinoza, 2005), including moving to methods of resource production that are less environmentally destructive and more productive (Población et al., 2016). Food security and quality can be improved under tara bandu, through the sustainable maintenance of food stocks like fish, and better protection and management of agricultural crops (Bhattacharya, 2018b; Población et al., 2016). The revival of tara bandu is a way for local people with ancestral connections to be empowered and self-reliant in terms of local, natural resource management. Equally, as a conflict prevention and resolution method, it contributes to social cohesion on a basis of shared respect for common principles (Población et al., 2016). Some contemporary tara bandu are making efforts to address gender inclusion, and to improve the voice of women in the decision-making process (Ide et al., 2021), despite historically male-dominated leadership and decision-making (Cardinoza, 2005; House et al., 2024).

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Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Cultural diversity and history
  • Food production (for humans)
  • Production of fuel / energy
  • Habitat provision
  • Mana (pride), whakamana (empowerment), tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty)
  • Provision of raw materials
  • Social justice and equity
  • Species maintenance
  • Spiritual and religious inspiration

The revival of tara bandu in Timor-Leste is an encouraging acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledge by the recently established independent state. It allows the many Indigenous peoples of Timor-Leste to express their cultural diversity, and to uphold ancient and more recent hybrid practices that comprise tara bandu today (Casquilho & Martins, 2022). In doing so, it also enables sustainable production of resources, food, fuel, energy, and establishes habitat provision and species maintenance, all of which are maintained and reviewed in a consensus-based customary tradition. Social justice is mediated through the spiritual realm, and uniquely relies on the prospect, judgement, guidance, and punishment of perpetrators from spiritual and ancestral influences, facilitated by ritual authorities (Población et al., 2016). This means that ultimately, punishment and reconciliation are delivered not by people, but by spiritual, belief-based forces, making resentment toward local leaders or other members of the community less likely (Ide et al., 2021). Communities who enact tara bandu uphold them with pride for their tangible benefits, and feel empowered to protect, maintain and sustain the natural environment, and assert claims over local resources and food sources (Bhattacharya, 2018b).

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Technical requirements

A major requirement for the effective establishment of tara bandu is agreement and collaboration with authorities. Ritual leaders, local authorities and other stakeholders must agree on the specific, norms, location, and extent of what is prohibited, as well as the material penalties and actions required for resolving a violation (Población et al., 2016). Alongside this, negotiations with the ancestral realm alongside community consensus (as tara bandu is essentially a bottom-up process) are required to formalise tara bandu (Ide et al., 2021). Communities must also acquire the resources and means to conduct a complex ceremony that can last for multiple days (Ide et al., 2021). Preparing these materials can be expensive and difficult, and usually rely on periodically available resources, such as animals for sacrifice (Cardinoza, 2005).

Written documentation must be produced, discussed, and signed by the relevant authorities, in conjunction with customary components such as ritual and spiritual practices. After a tara bandu is established, physical signs of prohibition (ceremonial posts or markers), which usually display the prohibited resource, sacrificed animals and other signs must be placed in the area of the prohibition. Importantly, following the establishment of tara bandu they must be enforced. For communities, this involves the ability to monitor (Cardinoza, 2005).

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Issues and Barriers

There is a need for capable actants, from both local and regional authorities, and the local community involved in establishing tara bandu. Support from authorities and external organisations must occur in ways that do not jeopardise local, specific processes and autonomy in justice processes (Ide et al., 2021). A wide-reaching issue is increased workload for people, both in the establishment, management, and monitoring of tara bandu, and for the community as a whole, if a previously readily available food or material resource becomes prohibited. This can also lead to increased household expenditure if resources must be bought rather than gathered (Bhattacharya, 2018a).

Maubere societies in Timor-Leste are traditionally patriarchal, so maintaining gender inclusion in decision-making processes is an ongoing issue. Women and children may be disproportionately affected when they are more often engaging in resource gathering that occurs near to villages. Transfer of knowledge and spiritual domain require protocols of lineage, and diminishing traditional beliefs among young people means the processes by which knowledge and spirituality are transferred may be breaking down (Benny et al., 2021)


It is important to consider tara bandu as a culturally specific practice that has developed endogenously in place (Ide et al., 2021), and that even within Timor-Leste there is significant variation in the practices, as reflected in the diversity of distinct ethnic and linguistic groups of the country (Timor-Leste, 2020). Tara bandu is therefore not a transferrable practice able to be replicated as is, thought the underlying thinking could be examined for use in other contexts. Its revival and recognition at a governmental level serves as a precedent for the revival and recognition of other customary resource management and traditional justice practices like it in Te Moananui Oceania.

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Opportunities

Tara bandu “comprises a suite of highly locally contextualised (but ostensibly quite similar) practices that regulate a range of social and environmental relationships” (Ide et al., 2021). Specific to Timor-leste, it would be inappropriate to suggest utilising tara bandu as a whole elsewhere.

As an example of the hybridisation and adaptability of indigenous knowledges, the practice of tara bandu has remained even in the context of near complete suppression under colonial rule (Casquilho & Martins, 2022). Perhaps what makes the practice so resilient is its flexibility, being adapted through time as needs and threats shift. There are obvious biodiversity and conservation opportunities for employing tara bandu, and although historically focused on land-based resources, it also shows potential for customary conservation of marine environments and resources (Población et al., 2016).

Inherently community-focused, Tara bandu is means to work toward social and community justice in a non-punitive, consensus-based, locally relevant manner. Formalisation of tara bandu increases transparency in justice systems that operate locally as well as within larger authorities, and complete recognition and integration of a customary justice system at a governmental level is unprecedented, at least in Te Moananui Oceania (Jacobs, 2021).

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Financial case

There is limited information about the specific costs of tara bandu, in implementation and management but generally, it does not depend on membership or regular input of resources (Población et al., 2016). Considering Timor-Leste is a new nation and among the most impoverished in the region, the financial case is a fairly intangible factor (Cardinoza, 2005). Tara bandu is a complex ceremony requiring specific resources, which could be considered expensive to local people, requiring significant portions of food for a communal meal, animals for sacrifice and other ceremonial materials, and unable to gather these can lead to postponing the establishment of prohibition (Cardinoza, 2005).

Use of tara bandu can generate interest in funding for the establishment of practices like tara bandu, especially for their biodiversity and conservation potential (Bhattacharya, 2018a; Cardinoza, 2005; Nascimento, n.d.; Población et al., 2016). The availability and sustainability of resources are a key factor in stable, peaceful relations and therefore the value of tara bandu in this domain is almost unquantifiable (Ide et al., 2021). It is also important to note that like many Indigenous people, communities in Timor-Leste do not see resources as property under ownership, but rather uphold the concept of Na’in, meaning a custodian or guardian responsible for ensuring the sustainability of a certain resource (Benny et al., 2021).

The fines related to tara bandu can be both resource-based and monetary but are usually distributed and consumed on the day, and involve valuable foodstuffs, alcohol, livestock, betel, and areca (stimulants) (Población et al., 2016). In some examples, resolutions achieved through tara bandu are significantly cheaper than through the formal justice system (Hutt, 2015). Aside from penalties for violators, tara bandu can have negative economic effects on local people, especially those who rely on natural resources subject to prohibition, such as fisher people being driven into more difficult, deeper waters (Bhattacharya, 2018a, 2018b). At the same time, prohibitions can ensure resource sustainability, protect the activities and assets of people across generations, and enhance collective livelihoods (Cardinoza, 2005). 

By moving to methods of resource production that are less environmentally destructive under tara bandu, local people often establish more productive means of resource procurement (Población et al., 2016). Food security and quality can be improved under tara bandu, through the sustainable maintenance of food stocks like fish, and better protection and management of agricultural crops (Bhattacharya, 2018a; Población et al., 2016). These wellbeing factors also contribute to greater economic outcomes.

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Figure caption “Tara Bandu Ceremony in Açumanu” in response to a fire, prohibiting the cutting of trees, photo showing a ceremonial post, by Demetrio Do Amaral De Carvalho State Secretary for the Environment, Timor-Leste. Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons.
Figure caption “Hatuquessi tara bandu” showing a sacrificed fowl being inspected for signals from the spiritual realm, by Demetrio Do Amaral De Carvalho State Secretary for the Environment, Timor-Leste. Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons.
References
  • Benny, Fios, F., & Martoredjo, N. T. (2021). The values of local wisdom on human relations with the environment in Bobonaro district, Timor Leste. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 747(1), 012036. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/747/1/012036
  • Bhattacharya, B. K. (2018a, October 26). Timor-Leste: Maubere tribes revive customary law to protect the ocean. Mongabay. https://news.mongabay.com/2018/10/timor-leste-maubere-tribes-revive-customary-law-to-protect-the-ocean/
  • Bhattacharya, B. K. (2018b, October 31). Timor-Leste: Q&A with a Maubere fisherman on reviving depleted fisheries. Mongabay. https://news.mongabay.com/2018/10/timor-leste-qa-with-a-maubere-fisherman-on-reviving-depleted-fisheries/
  • Bhattacharya, B. K. (2018c, November 8). Timor-Leste: With sacrifice and ceremony, tribe sets eco rules. Mongabay. https://news.mongabay.com/2018/11/timor-leste-with-sacrifice-and-ceremony-tribe-sets-eco-rules/
  • Cardinoza, M. (2005). Reviving traditional NRM regulations (tara bandu) as a community-based approach of protecting carbon stocks and securing livelihoods. In D. Murdiyarso & H. Herawati (Eds.), Carbon Forestry: Who will benefit? (pp. 197–210). Center for International Forestry Research. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep02042.18
  • Casquilho, J., & Martins, X. (2022). Tara bandu: On the hybridization of a sign. Diálogos, 7, 239–269. https://doi.org/10.53930/27892182.dialogos.7.35
  • House, J., Amaral, N. M. S., Silva de Jesus, J., Gomes, J., Chew, M., Kleiber, D., Steenbergen, D. J., & Stacey, N. (2024). Women’s experiences of participatory small-scale fisheries monitoring in Timor-Leste. Maritime Studies, 23(1), 9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40152-024-00352-6
  • Hutt, D. (2015, June 25). Tara bandu: Homegrown justice. South East Asia Globe. https://southeastasiaglobe.com/tara-bandu-east-timor-leste-david-hutt-southeast-asia-globe/
  • Ide, T., Palmer, L. R., & Barnett, J. (2021). Environmental peacebuilding from below: Customary approaches in Timor-Leste. International Affairs, 97(1), 103–117. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiaa059
  • Jacobs, B. (2021). Indigenous Justice in Oceania and North America. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.627
  • Nascimento, C. (n.d.). Vila Maumeta, Timor-Leste: The role of tara bandu in marine and coastal conservation. Community Conservation Research Network. Retrieved January 17, 2024, from https://www.communityconservation.net/vila-maumeta-timor-leste-the-role-of-tara-bandu-in-marine-and-coastal-conservation/
  • Población, E. A., Rodrigues, P., & Ulric, R. L. (2016). Tara bandu as a coastal and marine resource management mechanism: A case study of Biacou, Timor-Leste. In Strengthening organizations and collective action in fisheries: Towards the formulation of a capacity development programme (pp. 301–340). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/310425861_Tara_Bandu_as_a_coastal_and_marine_resource_management_mechanism_A_case_study_of_Biacou_Timor-Leste
  • Timor-Leste. (2020, May). Minority Rights Group. https://minorityrights.org/country/timor-leste/

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