Buffalo and Coffee: Resurgence of gift exchange and commodification of livestock in Contemporary Timor-Leste
Shintaro Fukutake Sophia University, JAPAN
This paper examines the historical background of the revival of ritual practices and their relationship to poverty in the uplands of Timor-Leste. Silva (2016, 2017) made a thoughtful reflection on the contemporary governance that encouraged people, who were still heavily reliant on gift exchange, to adapt to the market economy. She points out that while the government aimed at promoting a market economy, there were also compromises made with agents who are getting involved in sacrifices and ceremonial exchanges linked to alliance and lifecycle rituals. One of the cases she dealt with was the prohibition on ritual exchanges, tara bandu, by the traditional resource management. It is interesting to note that this tara bandu was implemented in Ermera, where coffee, one of the only cash crops of Timor-Leste, is thriving. In other words, even amidst the center of coffee cultivation and Timor’s market economy, the gift exchange economy is still strong.
To understand the problem of poverty due to the coexistence of the gift exchange and market economies in Timor Leste, this paper will examine the introduction of coffee cultivation since the 19th century, and the taxation system in the beginning of the 20th century. Referring to historical literature such as Figueiredo (2011, 2018), Shepherd (2014), and my own research in Ermera and Ainaro, this paper will show that the gift exchange economy remained dominant in upland Timor throughout the Portuguese era. The ban on large-scale gatherings and rituals under Indonesian rule, however, changed their way of life. The lack of ritual practices reduced the demand for livestock, leading to a sharp drop in the number of livestock, especially buffalo: to nearly one-third of the Portuguese era. After independence, the revival of ritual practices has again increased the demand for buffalos. This change has led to the purchasing of buffaloes for ritual practices at the market, rather than through arrangements from relatives or alliances. Based on the historical background, this paper argues that this “commodification” of buffalos has caused the poverty of today’s small coffee holders in Timor’s uplands.