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The Land of Gold: Post-Conflict Recovery and Cultural Revival in Independent Timor-Leste

Land of Gold
Judith M. Bovensiepen
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In the village of Funar, located in the central highlands of Timor-Leste, the disturbing events of the twenty-four-year-long Indonesian occupation are rarely articulated in narratives of suffering. Instead, the highlanders emphasize the significance of their return to the sacred land of the ancestors, a place where “gold” is abundant and life is thought to originate. On the one hand, this collective amnesia is due to villagers’ exclusion from contemporary nation-building processes, which bestow recognition only on those who actively participated in the resistance struggle against Indonesia. On the other hand, the cultural revival and the privileging of the ancestral landscape and traditions over narratives of suffering derive from a particular understanding of how human subjects are constituted. Before life and after death, humans and the land are composed of the same substance; only during life are they separated. To recover from the forced dislocation the highlanders experienced under the Indonesian occupation, they thus seek to reestablish a mythical, primordial unity with the land by reinvigorating ancestral practices.

Never leaving out of sight the intense political and emotional dilemmas imposed by the past on people’s daily lives, The Land of Gold seeks to go beyond prevailing theories of post-conflict reconstruction that prioritize human relationships. Instead, it explores the significance of people’s affective and ritual engagement with the environment and with their ancestors as survivors come to terms with the disruptive events of the past.


Judith Bovensiepen is a social anthropologist with an interest in island Southeast Asia, especially Timor-Leste, where she has been carrying out fieldwork since 2005. She joined the University of Kent in 2011, after spending one year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. She holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BS in anthropology from University College London, and she has studied in France at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.


Land of Gold is an ethnography of post-conflict life in East Timor that is at once lyrical and devastating. By tracing how diverse relationships of loss, reclamation, and reimagination to the land shape and are shaped by survivors, Judith Bovensiepen offers a new understanding of the long years of war that captures both the personal and the political.—Tyrell Haberkorn, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU

In Land of Gold, Judith Bovensiepen brings a much needed ethnographic perspective to the study of social life in rural, post-occupation Timor-Leste. Villagers who returned to their ancestral origin place after a lengthy period of forced displacement had to reestablish social relations and restore their connections with the spiritual powers of the land. Bovensiepen demonstrates that the ritual processes in which these two imperatives were entangled were fraught with conflicts, tensions, and dilemmas. She argues persuasively that ritual performances brought the traumatic past into the present. As an analysis of how historical experience of political violence both shapes and is shaped by local cultural forms, the book has relevance beyond the region and beyond anthropology.—Elizabeth G. Traube, Wesleyan University


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