Displacement and Change

Documenting the cultural heritage of Suai-Camenaça

Timor Aid is documenting the cultural heritage of the peoples of Suai-Camenaça and surrounds who will be affected by the Tasi Mane Petroleum Infrastructure Project. The Tasi Mane project, planned and funded by the Government of Timor-Leste, will comprise an airport, supply base, and various other large-scale infrastructure developments along the southwest coast of the country.

This cultural heritage documentation work is being undertaken by a multidisciplinary, specialised team with support from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development

The context

The town of Suai and its surrounding settlements are home to approximately 23,000 people, mainly of the Tetun ethno-linguistic group. The Tetun people of Suai-Camenaça and surrounds have played an important role in the history of Timor-Leste. Moreover, these communities possess cultural knowledge and practice traditions that remain central to the national identity.

The everyday activities of the affected communities are intimately connected to their relationship with the land, their inter-communal ties, and their traditions and rituals. The complex inter-connectedness of these elements renders the cultural heritage of these communities unique and fascinating, yet fragile.

The project

This project will document local culture and traditions including language, music, cultural geography, biodiversity, and textiles for future generations. The project aims to document the culture and traditions of these communities at this critical point in their history before these practices are disrupted, changed, or lost as a result of this mega-infrastructure project.

Some communities will be physically displaced from their land, an event that poses an immediate threat to their cultural geography, including the layout of sacred houses (uma lulik and uma lisan), culturally and spiritually significant trees, and other landscape markers. The relocation will also result in changes in the biodiversity that the displaced communities have access to. The ripple effect of this change in available plants and natural materials will be felt in the spiritual practices, traditional medicine, cooking practices, and agricultural production of these communities. Displacement will affect the linguistic and musical practices of the relocated villages, who will be influenced by their new neighbouring communities.

Through the field visits undertaken to date, it has become clear that even those communities not being physically displaced from their land will experience changes as a result of the Tasi Mane project. Through the new airport, an influx of workers and visitors from other parts of Timor-Leste and overseas will enter the area and mix with local communities. This contact will undoubtedly affect the choices local people make about the languages they speak and the music they play and listen to.

In this sense, the imminent cultural change in Suai is a magnifying glass on the general threat to traditional arts that is present throughout Timor-Leste.


In recent field visits, the language, music, cultural geography, and ethno-botany teams documented local culture in various forms.

The language team, led by Camilla Zwack, interviewed people in the villages of Holbelis (Bunak-speaking) and Lohorai (Bunak- and Tetun-Terik-speaking)—communities directly affected by the airport construction plans. Many local community members responded strongly to the opportunity to record a message in their native language for future generations about how the communities live now, including their work and traditional activities. This language documentation will both ensure that future generations have materials to consult on their linguistic and cultural heritage, and also contribute to documenting the rich linguistic heritage of the region, which has yet to fully explored.

Dr. Philip Yampolsky, an ethnomusicologist, observed that systemic changes are occurring in local musical taste and practice. Many of the traditional repertoires of songs for entertainment and ritual are now known only to the older generations, while younger people are not motivated to learn them. For example, in earlier times people provided their own music for secular circle dances by singing as they danced, but nowadays the common practice is to dance to pre-recorded Indonesian and Timorese pop music.

The cultural geography and biodiversity teams have mapped the affected communities with GPS technology, creating an interactive map of culturally significant landmarks, such as sacred houses, and the plants found in the area and their uses.

Over the coming months, the project team will continue to visit the affected communities. In time, the records collected will be prepared for safekeeping: the involved communities will receive copies of the documentation, and an exhibition of the results will be held in Timor-Leste.

In April 2015, the interim results of the project were submitted to the donor, and can be downloaded here.