Like the rest of post-independence Timor Leste the spectre and expectation of development looms large in Baucau, the municipal hub of the east and the nation’s second largest city.2 Yet in this ‘in desperate need of development’ economy, less discernible to the unacquainted is the fact that the customary processes of exchange and inclusive sociality tracked in the pages of this book are equally enmeshed in complicated relationships with the formal state and capitalist sector. In this chapter I explore the renaissance of custom in Baucau town and surrounds and its many challenges. I begin with a discussion of the issues which confronted customary water governance in the late twentieth century and then examine the independence-era reassertion of ancestral identities and relationships. Through all of this I shed light on the multiple ways these worlds are being (re)negotiated ‘cleaving’ together and apart with powerfully discursive alternative practices and relational materialities (Lavau 2013). I also examine the ways in which the substantial resources invested to build community-based water supply systems and carry out hydrogeological research have to date elided substantive consideration of the complex socio-ecological variables impacting on the use and management of water resources in this particular karstic zone. During my fieldwork for this book, the Timorese government (in association with USAID) was developing new land and property laws and trialling a process of land registration to further demarcate property and create secure land markets, particularly in urban areas (Rede Ba Rai 2013; Fitzpatrick et al. 2012). Another part of the bureaucracy was working with international advisers to draft new national water laws and policies (Jackson and Palmer 2012). This meant that as local peoples were embracing their freedom to reconstitute their ancestral traditions and invigorate relations among themselves, they were also drawn into processes which sought to define land and resources through new systems of abstraction, legibility and value. Despite the land registration trial being limited to urban Baucau, the consequence of this discursive intervention across the zone was that a new emergence was underway: ‘agora rai folin iha’ (‘now the land has a price’). The immediate effect of the new laws was to enhance the power of the state to ‘purchase’ long-term leases or expropriate lands for development (Rede Ba Rai 2013; Stead 2014). Such a powerfully
discursive set of practices overlaid existing relational processes with new tensions. In Baucau, the result has been disquiet, simmering anxiety and even violence between local residents, neighbours and families. Sub-village heads say they are now called to intervene and mediate in an unprecedented number of local property disputes. At the same time as new land titling processes are being trialled, made legible and passed into law, district administrators and their national level counterparts eagerly encourage and plan for development and international investment in the district. Village heads are asked to support particular development visions often prior to community ‘socialization’, and this inadequate ‘consultation’ leaves many villagers uninformed and embittered. District administrators meanwhile are hopeful that new national political administrative laws will drive a municipal makeover. Amidst this milieu of aspirational rhetoric and weak consultation, national and international aid agencies roll out a bewildering and repetitive suite of ‘global best practice’ development programmes aimed at improving wellbeing, livelihood capacities and local governance (cf. Peake 2013; Shepherd 2013). In all this planning for economic development, to deliver services, to build local capacity, to create jobs and wellbeing, the formal sector continually ignores or underestimates the extant capacities for active economic engagement, social and environmental governance which is manifest in the customary economy. While some customary practices may be recognized in rural development initiatives, this recognition is routinely dichotomized against urban enclaves such as Baucau which are imagined to harbour only remnant traditions (see ARD 2008; Costin and Powell 2006). Yet the discursive sidelining of the customary economy and attachments to place does not mean that they go away. As we saw in the previous chapter, customary understandings of exchange and ‘inclusive sociality’ are very much ongoing concerns in both rural and urban areas. To understand both the commitment to, and the halting re-emergence of, such ritual relationships in the independence era, below I examine the succession of late colonial ‘developments’ that have impacted on Baucau’s water supply and customary governance.