The University of Arizona

The development eraser: fantastical schemes, aspirational distractions and high modern mega-events in the Oecusse enclave, Timor-Leste

Laura S. Meitzner Yoder


The array of challenges to durably improving rural peoples' lives in remote regions is so daunting that it can be tempting to erase what is there, and to seek a blank slate. This tension is being played out in the OecusseAmbeno enclave of Timor-Leste, a region long familiar with geographic and political isolation. Residents now encounter a new iteration of their unique status: rapid declaration of their region as a special economic zone (ZEESM), with a new regional governance structure and an appointed leadership. The advent of this new zone is meant to catapult Oecusse from its current state of chronic infrastructure and basic development challenges to a booming economic center and a fount of national income in short order. Early emphasis is placed on rapid, major coastal infrastructure construction deemed necessary for the November 2015 commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Portuguese arrival, with the hallmarks associated with high modernism and mega-event preparation worldwide: spatial re-ordering and regulation; a strong orientation to external inputs, resources, and services; and centralized control of rapid infrastructure change. This article investigates the ideological underpinnings of these plans, and explores the irony of how the proposals and their governance arrangement are a disjuncture with Oecusse as a historically important place. It concludes with observations on this project's place in the national development context, and the likely costs and impacts of development for the Oecusse population. Risks include further political and economic marginalization of the mountain-dwelling and rural population, local residents' loss of productive agricultural land and access to water, reduced protection through administrative exclusion from national political structures, and the opportunity costs of misdevelopment's aspirational distractions.

Key words: Special Economic Zone; high modernism; mega-event; Timor-Leste; Oecusse Ambeno; economic development

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