Peace Science Digest

Exploring Bottom-Up Environmental Peacebuilding in Timor-Leste

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Ide, T., Palmer, L. R., & Barnett, J. (2021). Environmental peacebuilding from below: Customary approaches in Timor-Leste. International Affairs, 97(1), 103-117.

Talking Points 

  • Local or bottom-up environmental peacebuilding practices gain relatively little attention in environmental peacebuilding discourse despite the “local turn” in peacebuilding.  

In the case of Timor-Leste:  

  • The local customary dispute resolution practice of Tara bandu—practiced throughout Timor-Leste to manage natural resources and address communal or interpersonal violence—is an example of successful, bottom-up environmental peacebuilding,   
  • Tara bandu aims to regulate social interactions and to prevent conflict, hence contributing to peacebuilding in a setting where local cleavages might escalate, while simultaneously managing natural resources.” 
  • Tara bandu is a highly spiritual and cultural practice, which makes it difficult for state and international stakeholders to become involved without undermining “the process’s legitimacy and efficacy.” 

Key Insight for Informing Practice  

The focus on local peacebuilding among international peacebuilders has revealed several important considerations for emerging knowledge and practice in environmental peacebuilding—particularly the need to contend with local and national politics, especially those that perpetuate or (re)produce power imbalances between local, state, and international stakeholders.  


Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002, following several decades of brutal control by Indonesia characterized by human rights violations, forced displacement, and the destruction of agricultural land. Timor-Leste’s new government was confronted with considerable tension over land and property rights, complicated by multiple and overlapping claims from differing land tenure systems. To address competing claims to land and natural resources, as well as other types of social and interpersonal conflict, many local communities around the country returned to a customary practice for dispute resolution referred to as tara bandu 

Tobias Ide, Lisa R. Palmer, and Jon Barnett examine tara bandu as a local environmental peacebuilding practice. They note that emerging scholarship on environmental peacebuilding is largely focused on cases with “heavy involvement of external, usually international actors” with relatively few bottom-up environmental peacebuilding cases. The aim of their research is to “rectify…imbalances in knowledge by contributing new evidence about local environmental peacebuilding.” Their analysis engages the debate between liberal peacebuilding and the “local turn” in peacebuilding by demonstrating that tara bandu is “a form of successful environmental peacebuilding” but that the involvement of state and international stakeholders “causes detachment from local contexts [undermining] the process’s legitimacy and efficacy.” Evidence is drawn from ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Timor-Leste between 2006 and 2018. 

Liberal peacebuilding: “Efforts in conflict-affected societies to support the creation of liberal institutions—especially liberal democratic governments and market-oriented economic systems—which are assumed to limit the chances of relapse into armed conflict. The liberal peacebuilding project has been criticized for importing liberal institutions and implementing them in a top-down fashion without adequate attention to local context, privileging “international”/Western expertise over local expertise, and reinstating colonial relations between the “developed” and “developing” world.”

Peace Science Digest. (2019). The importance of local/international relationship-building to peacebuilding in Bougainville and Sierra Leone. Retrieved January 25, 2024, from

“Local turn” in peacebuilding (or, local peacebuilding): Peacebuilding efforts led by local actors. These efforts “center[] local expertise and solutions” and “shift[] resources, economic or otherwise, to local agents of constructive change.”

Peace Science Digest. (2020). Special issue: Local, national, and international peacebuilding. Retrieved January 25, 2024, from

Tara bandu is a highly localized set of rituals and negotiations practiced at the village or sub-village level over the course of several days. Public ceremonies are a critical part of the practice wherein “a pre-agreed set of prohibitions are announced to the local community in the presence of witnesses.” Witnesses are both “named spirits called…from the ancestral realm, and significant guests from outside the community.” Negotiations take place between local leaders and the ancestral/spiritual realm that produce “[posts] hung (tara) with symbols, usually skulls of scarified animals and forest foliage along with ‘banned’ items representing the prohibitions (bandu) now in place.” The integration of the ancestral realm in this practice garners legitimacy from the wider community, and it is believed that those who break the rules “suffer supernatural punishment.” Additionally, the negotiations include an agreed set of punishments for rule violators, including fines, with a monitoring group to ensure compliance. Community members generally prefer a tara bandu practice over resolving conflict with the police or national judicial system, further increasing the incentive to comply.

Both state and local leaders agree that the spiritual and communal aspects of tara bandu result in effective conflict resolution. Tara bandu can be employed for a variety of reasons, but it is often used to resolve disputes over shared natural resources—for example, to protect water sources or forested areas, manage grazing or agricultural land, or settle competing claims over land. It is also used to address instances of communal, sexual, or domestic violence. As such, “tara bandu aims to regulate social interactions and to prevent conflict, hence contributing to peacebuilding in a setting where local cleavages might escalate, while simultaneously managing natural resources.”

Yet, because tara bandu is a highly spiritual and cultural practice, it is difficult for outsiders to work with. “Frictions can arise when outside agencies seek to engage with tara bandu for well-intentioned instrumental purposes and fail to appreciate the effect of their practices on the deeper cosmological, sociological and temporal dimensions.” For example, NGOs have offered financial or in-kind support for tara bandu but fail to follow through past the initial ceremonial phase, leading to poorly enforced prohibitions. In the Ermera region of Timor-Leste, the tara bandu process became formalized and bureaucratized by the state, stripping the local community of control, and limiting the flexibility of the process.

When external stakeholders co-opt tara bandu (even with good intentions), it ultimately undermines the practice. Support for the practice without fully appreciating its social and spiritual dimensions “is inefficient at best and undermines local customary structures at worst.” External support may also lead to the perception that local authorities are no longer in control of the process. State involvement, “might operate as a kind of symbolic politics, helping the government to claim legitimacy despite falling short of meeting its own responsibilities for managing resources.”

The authors draw several lessons for environmental peacebuilding practice from their study of tara bandu. First is an affirmation that bottom-up environmental peacebuilding can be successful in managing natural resources. Yet, environmental peacebuilding is often “articulated in terms of a western-style ontology of self-interest and rational choice behaviors” that fails to appreciate the importance of local customary or spiritual elements that are critical to the success of tara bandu. They also note that external support for local environmental peacebuilding is “frequently identified as a facilitating condition for successful environmental peacebuilding,” whereas in the case of tara bandu in Timor-Leste, external support can undermine and weaken the practice. These findings call on academics and practitioners in environmental peacebuilding, particularly those from Western backgrounds, to critically examine whether their projects are supporting or undermining local practices and to give space for local practices to flourish without intervention.

Informing Practice

This research aimed to bring forward a case study on local or bottom-up environmental peacebuilding after observing a relative lack of such case work in the broader environmental peacebuilding literature. Given the wealth of literature on local peacebuilding, this presents an opportunity to apply existing local peacebuilding knowledge to environmental peacebuilding practice. The Peace Science Digest published a special issue on local, national, and international peacebuilding that explored the “local turn” in peacebuilding and identified important questions for international peacebuilders engaging in local peacebuilding. One such lesson from local peacebuilding can be applied here: the need to address local and national politics, especially those that perpetuate or (re)produce power imbalances between local, state, and international stakeholders.

Who are the “locals” in local peacebuilding? Analyses in the Digest special issue reflected on this question given the tendency for international peacebuilders to work with local partners in capital cities but less directly with rural or otherwise harder-to-access communities. For international peacebuilders, focusing efforts on easy-to-access local actors can result in perpetuating local power imbalances. For example, according to research by Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik summarized in the Digest analysis “Recognizing the Hidden Politics of Local Peacebuilding,” in the context of local peacebuilding efforts in the former Yugoslavia, the “Western ideal of ‘the local’ can be a site of exclusion where local actors have different levels of power.” Certain local actors “who can navigate the donor and other international agency world become complicit in, ‘making decisions about which (other local) marginalised voices are heard, and under what conditions,’ leading to the (re)production of power hierarchies, regulatory practices, disciplinary rules, and roles for ‘experts’ and ‘subjects.’”

Customary environmental peacebuilding practices are subject to power politics as well. Conflict could arise when conflicting dispute resolution systems, like the nationally organized judicial system versus the customary practice of tara bandu, result in contradictory natural resource management rules. Which set of rules do international stakeholders look to support: a nationally or locally driven solution to environmental peacebuilding? Further, to what extent have conflict histories in Timor-Leste produced marginalized communities excluded from national-level dispute resolution processes for whom the tara bandu practice is the most legitimate and trustworthy means of resolving conflict? How does the involvement of state or international stakeholders in tara bandu affect marginalized communities in particular? 

Finally, in embracing a decolonial approach to peacebuilding, it is important to ask: how can outsiders ensure that their activities respect and cede power to local and/or Indigenous practices? The case of tara bandu reveals a successful practice without the involvement of external stakeholders. Further, outsider involvement in the tara bandu practice can derail its success. Perhaps there is considerable wisdom in allowing customary practices to exist within a larger, more complex web of national and international regulations without attempting to force multiple dispute resolution mechanisms to fit together. Providing space for local and customary practices to flourish with external intervention could be a pathway to greater peace and more effective environmental management in contexts with strong local institutions. [KC]


Peace Direct: 


Community Conservation Research Network:

Continued Reading

Medina, L., Pacillo, G., Hellin, J., & Bonatti, M. (2023, April). Community voices on climate, peace and security: A social learning approach. CGIAR Climate Security Observatory Methods Papers Series. Retrieved January 17, 2024, from

Peace Science Digest. (2023). Local peace agreements as a means to dissolving armed conflict. Retrieved October 25, 2023, from

PNAS. (2021, July). Special feature: Sustaining the commons: Advancing understanding of common pool resource management. Retrieved February 8, 2024, from

Peace Direct. (2021). Time to decolonize aid. Retrieved October 25, 2023, from

Peace Science Digest. (2020). Recognizing the hidden politics of local peacebuilding. Retrieved October 25, 2023, from  

Peace Science Digest. (2020). Special issue on local, national, and international peacebuilding. Retrieved October 25, 2023, from

Nascimento, C. (N.d.) Vila Maumeta, Timor-Leste: Tara Bandu in Marine and Coastal Conservation. Community Conservation Research Network.  Retrieved February 8, 2024, from,

Keywords: managing conflicts without violence, environmental peacebuilding, Timor-Leste

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

This analysis is featured in our Special Issue: Decolonial and Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding.