Opinion and Editorial

Jungle medicine in Timor-Leste

Rahul Goswami (Cochinchina)
Filed on December 20, 2014

For 24 years of the occupation of Timor-Leste, the resistance fighters survived on ancient knowledge, for food and for their health

Lautem is the easternmost amongst the distritos, the districts, of Timor-Leste. To the north is the Strait of Wetar, to the east is the Arafura Sea, and to the south is the Sea of Timor. Westwards are the narrow coastal plains that stretch along both verges of the country and westwards too is the cordillera which is like the mountainous spine of Timor-Leste.

It is a district of arresting natural beauty in a country whose landscapes are remarkable. Here is the country’s largest continuous forest block - in Timor-Leste there is primarily monsoon forest and savannah with small pockets of evergreen rainforest and moist deciduous forests. If viewed from the summit of one of its towering hills, and provided the mists that regularly descend stay away, Lautem appears as a mosaic of primary and secondary forests with small patches of cleared land. The area is also remarkable for the extensive wetlands - extensive swamps and Ira Laluro, the country’s largest lake.

Its distance from Dili, the country’s capital, and from Baucau, the next largest urban settlement, lent to the distrito of Lautem the conditions which enabled the resistance movement - during the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia’s military - to survive and to fight for independence. Throughout the Indonesian occupation, from 1975 to 1999 (when the referendum was held), the Forças Armadas da Libertação Nacional de Timor Leste (Falantil), led an armed struggle against the Indonesian army. During the early years of the occupation, Falantil had control of a significant portion of the country but was eventually pushed east into the more remote jungle regions of the distrito of Lautem. A long guerrilla conflict was fought in the forests of Lautem where small groups of Falantil forces evaded well-supplied Indonesian troops for 24 years.

During the resistance all Falantil soldiers and supporters gathered and used their working knowledge of useful forest plants to provide food and traditional medicines. Today, those who retain and apply such knowledge with as much felicity as they had to during the resistance years are aging, indeed there are few under the age of 60 who are more reliant on their community’s traditional ethno-botanical knowledge for treatment of disease and ailments than on allopathic products available from the typical primary health centre.

In the distrito of Lautem, this knowledge is contained in the language Fataluku, one of the 16 that are spoken in the country. An elder who speaks Fataluku will usually also speak Bahasa Indonesian, be spiritually animist with a deep regard for natural forces and the ecology, be a peasant farmer whose most important crops are corn and cassava. Often, such a person’s original village was a remote community which had been relocated, in the years of the occupation and through the 1970s, to reconstructed settlements along both sides of the district’s major roads. This was the occupationist strategy to keep the rural population visible and within reach of the armed forces. As a result rural Timor-Leste is dotted with such villages, and their modern distance from original settlement sites has also widened the divide between the villagers and the forests they depended on for food and medicine.

Until the Indonesia occupation (during the period that Timor-Leste was a colony of Portugal) and to a reduced extent during the occupation, more perceptive and talented youth would be trained by elders in medicinal and traditional plant use. These youth became apprentices, one to each elder, and some committed their learning to writing (some of which has survived in Bahasa Indonesian). According to those who were amongst the trained youth some three decades ago, the elders lived, frequently alone, in limestone caves and survived by hunting and gathering in the forest and through the produce they garnered from swidden agriculture.

Timorese of the generation which either took active part in the resistance — that is, they were Falantil soldiers or supporters and who would retreat to the high valleys of the central cordillera — recount how they survived in the forest under harsh conditions, where they were forced to forage for forest foods as it was too dangerous to return to the relocated village communities along district roads controlled by Indonesian forces. During these months it was traditional medicine that was relied upon to treat ailments — the urban centres of Dili and Baucau were entirely in the grip of the Indonesian occupation forces.

Today, the government of Timor-Leste seeks, through revenues from oil and gas exploration, to give the citizens of the small country a good per capita income and modern infrastructure. In this pursuit, younger Timorese are losing contact with the knowledge that served their parents so well during the years of occupation and earlier. There is still the opportunity, as long as the resistance generation is with them, to revive and revere the ecological foundations of their most precious traditions.

Rahul Goswami is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia

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