From the field: Investigating Timorese World Views and Manganese Mining


From the field: Investigating Timorese World Views and Manganese Mining

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The rainy season has well and truly set in. I left West Timor in November 2016 after 7 months fieldwork. The land was dry, parched and dusty. Returning in January 2017, over a few months and a lot of rain, the hillsides have turned lush and green, the rivers are flowing and the heat subdued.

                                   Dry landscape in northern West Timor         

                                   Rice paddies in TTU   

I have returned to West Timor to complete the final period of fieldwork with my cultural guide Willy and under the sponsorship of Universitas Nusa Cendana in Kupang. My research investigates the diversity of worldviews within communities which determine local responses to mining, ultimately to resist or adapt to this new livelihood based on non-renewable resources. This study draws on fieldwork where semi-structured and key informant interviews were conducted with miners, community members, village leaders and landholders, across ten communities in West Timor. In this current round of field research I have been investigating concepts of the sacred and how this influences whether people mine and if so, how they choose to mine. 

         Creek through rainforest TTU

A sacred place can be viewed as something that is precious and essential, like an Oe Kanaf or Faut Kanaf, the name spring or name rock to which a clan claims their origin. These physical places are a part of their identity, and geographically grounds their collective heritage to a significant landform. Other places are considered sacred because of their strong energy which can be dangerous, particularly at certain times of day, and are usually avoided. Some places are sacred as this is where the local people perform ceremonies, giving offerings to the ancestors, the God of the Earth and the God of the Sky. One of these ceremonies Tah Pen Feu, the ceremony to eat the young corn, first gives thanks to the spirit beings for the harvest, and takes place within each village at the end of February or early March, depending on the climate that year.

                         Cornfield TTU

Usually sacred places are not disturbed, and mining is not permitted in these areas. Manganese itself though, can also be considered sacred. Manganese can form unusual shapes, often occurring as rounded discs of various sizes, and is black and significantly heavier than other stones, leading some to believe it has powerful properties. Sometimes it is just a particular manganese stone which is considered sacred or inhabited by spirit, and so is not taken. Manganese is often seen as having a ‘spirit owner’, sometimes referred to as the God of the Earth or the being who dwells in the place where the manganese occurs. Manganese is understood as belonging to this spirit owner, and therefore ceremonies must be performed before mining takes place, to offer sacrifices and ask permission from the spirit owner for them to take the manganese, and also to ensure that the activities are safe and bring good results.

                                  Manganese nodules

It’s not only concepts of the sacred that influence how people mine but also their values and perspectives. As subsistence farmers, most rural communities are able to independently produce the majority of their food requirements. Many choose to mine because they need money to buy basic everyday needs such as coffee, sugar and soap, as well as pay for their children’s education costs. Sometimes the money from manganese can be sufficient to buy livestock, building materials or a motorbike. One village, however, has refused to mine, explaining that the earth already provides them with everything they need, and to take manganese from the earth and sell it is greedy and disrespectful. Other villages have chosen only to mine manually, using hand tools to dig shallow holes and have refused to use excavators even if offered by mining companies. By refusing the use of heavy machinery they protect their other natural resources, such as teak, candlenut and mango trees, and prevent landslides if situated on steep slopes. By mining manually they also slow down the impacts of mining, so that they can be controlled more easily, and keep the activity of mining, quite literally, within the hands of the local people rather than an outside company.

                                 Small mine Kab Kupang                                 

Local values and beliefs influence decisions on how manganese mining should occur. And these values and beliefs differ across communities in West Timor, depending on their current worldview. The diversity in approaches to mining highlight the importance of understanding local context to ensure locally relevant and appropriate natural resource management.

The results from this fieldwork will be presented at the conference 'International Symposium on Society and Natural Resource Management' in Umeå, Sweden, in June 2017, in a presentation titled "Protecting the Sacred, Taming the Sacred: Views on Manganese Mining in West Timor, Indonesia."

Sonaf Maslete