The University of Arizona

Political ecologies of wood and wax: sandalwood and beeswax as symbols and shapers of customary authority in the Oecusse enclave, Timor

Laura S. Meitzner Yoder


The enclave of Oecusse-Ambeno, Timor Leste, was formed in part through struggles over controlling trade in sandalwood and beeswax, two forest products that continue to influence political and ritual allegiances, and the political history of Oecusse. These products are interwoven with the region's contacts with outsiders, influencing local political hierarchies and roles of kings, village heads, and ritual authorities. While wood and wax are recognized to be of Timorese origin, local myths posit that their use and value was unrecognized before the arrival of Chinese traders and Portuguese missionaries. Several narratives of the origins of trade in sandalwood, and the kings' annual beeswax candle tributes, illustrate the enduring connections among local authorities, forest resource control, religious symbolism, and ritual obligations surrounding harvests of sandalwood and beeswax. Customary practices contribute to forest conservation through local protection of beeswax-producing forests, and by circumscribing the harvest. While both beehives and sandalwood impede intensive agricultural land uses, farmers welcome beeswax as a profitable product that supports ritual. But they resent sandalwood's growth in their fields since it involves more regulation and increased labor requirements. The two products' different ecologies of disturbance and incidence contributed over time to distinct ownership norms and forms of control by customary authorities. This is the "political ecology of wood and wax" in Oecusse.

Key words: Oecusse, Timor Leste/East Timor, sandalwood, beeswax, customary authority, colonialism.

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