Sacred sandalwood saw forests thrive in Bobonaro

Ancient beliefs see the tree “handed down from God” in parts of Bobonaro municipality.

Sandalwood is well-known in every part of Timor-Leste—the tree is endemic to the island of Timor and its wealth and significance has been known from end to end of the island for centuries. But few communities have such strong beliefs about sandalwood as two villages in Bobonaro municipality: Oe-leu and Tapo sucos, or villages, in the administrative post of Bobonaro, where sandalwood is deeply lulik, or sacred.

In aldeia Mologen, suco Oe-leu, lia-na’in Afonso Barros and xefe aldeia Domingos Carlos told AI-Com staff about their community’s strongly held sandalwood belief, dating past their grandparents’ time, that prevents their families and descendants from touching sandalwood – including cutting, planting, burning, taking or using any parts of the tree or its seeds.

If they’re involved in some of the prohibited behaviours such as touching the sandalwood, they’ll become sick. The lia-na’in will notice this sickness through a bad dream, or through seeing common signs of disease – for instance, vomiting blood – and the person must sacrifice a young pig to ask for forgiveness and recovery. As part of protecting the sacred tree, they must also apply a multa, or fine, to sandalwood thieves in their surround areas, of a big buffalo (karau metan/Timor), one good-sized pig, three jugs of tua sabu, and $500 cash.

The lia-na’in told us that the sandalwood thieves will just lucky if no one of their village’s community find them out. But if a community member finds a thief, they must report to the lia-na’in so that they can apply the fine – otherwise, they will become sick.

Every aldeia in both of these sucos holds this belief, and all children grow up knowing that sandalwood is lulik. This belief says that sandalwood came directly from God – which is why the belief is so strongly held. Lulik ne’e maka’as teb-tebes.

If you collected sandalwood tree branches lying on the forest floor by mistakes, you must return the branches to the tree from which they fell – and if you don’t know, you must put the branches into the river. But, perhaps, if someone else was to distil the oil from the sandalwood tree’s heartwood from somewhere else around the globe (i.e.perfume made from sandalwood oil), you may be able to handle the oil.

While many communities in Timor-Leste hold sandalwood tree in high regard, few—if any—consider it lulik in the same way as families in Oe-leu and Tapo sucos. Some families from this area relocated to Balibo in 1975, and families in this area still prize sandalwood, but the strength of the lulik belief has reduced since they moved from Oe-leu and Tapo.

Other neighbouring sucos know of but don’t share this belief, which is why this area no longer has decades-old, large sandalwood trees. But understanding and documenting sandalwood beliefs and practises offers an important path for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ important work cataloguing and replenishing Timor-Leste’s historic sandalwood forests for the benefit of every citizen.

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