Research on plants and textiles traditions in Timor Leste

A woman showing plant that can be used for traditional textile production (© UNESCO/Estradivari)

UNESCO Jakarta Office worked closely with Timor Aid Foundation to conduct research on plants and textile traditions in Timor Leste in 2011. The objectives of this research were to provide detailed information on the plants associated with the weaving practices (description, regional variations, and geographic spread) and to document the traditional knowledge related to Tais weaving in several areas/districts in Timor Leste. The research was led by Dr. Tony Cunningham, an international ethnobiology expert.

The research method combined literature study of several key documents and reports, fieldwork in some districts in West Timor, and complimentary experience of cultural uses of plants and associated belief systems in Africa, China, Indonesia and Timor Leste over the past decades.

The report documented 80 plant species from at least 30 plant families used across Timor Leste for textile production process. Although none of them are on the IUCN’s Red List, the biggest challenge in the future will be to maintain wild populations of Symplocos, as almost all species are used as natural mordants.

Habitat loss as a result of agricultural expansion also threatens the wild population of all plant species. Through repeat photography method, based on photos taken by Brigitte Clamagirand (in 1960s-70s) and Tony Cunningham (in 2011), it was demonstrated that the land and socio-ecological conditions of Timor Leste have changed drastically over the past decades.

Textile tradition in Timor Leste is not only related to plants used in textile production, but is also related to a wider cultural, economical and ecological context. Therefore, without conservation of the remaining montane forests, a century-old trade “thread” from montane Timor Leste to textile weavers in many other districts will be broken.

Community based conservation strategies developed through participation of traditional leaders who already regulate access through customary law and “tara bandu” (the traditional prohibitions to regulate access to natural resources and certain areas of forest) have an important role to play in the future. Effective, decentralized forest conservation through local community involvement will result on conservation of a range of species that have cultural value, not only for textiles, but also for other purposes.

The report also argues that there is an opportunity for bringing textiles, local research and past research into school curricula in three ways:

  • by providing teaching framework in the form of modules that encourage systems thinking which integrates various local knowledge that exists in daily life;
  • by promoting trans-disciplinary skills. This can encourage school and university staff and students to link formal scientific knowledge with local knowledge; and
  • by taking multiple spatial and time scales into account. Relocation of the photographs taken by Brigitte Clamagirand and discussions about the changes that have taken place, for example, can be a very useful learning experience to understand the change over time and what drives those changes.

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