The Metu people of West Timor

A couple of years ago West Timor used to see tourists in the range of 3 – 4.000 foreigners a year. Many of these visited the mountainous region of the Gunung Mutis protection forest. Particularly bird watchers showed a great interest to the area. In 2001 tourism dropped to less than a hundred visitors yearly due to the proximity to the East Timor border, the refugee situation and general instability in the area.

Nenas woman on her way to the market.
Nenas woman on her way to the market. West Timor. Photo © Narve Rio

Still in 2003 the difficult situation persists.

Gunung Mutis Nature Reserve (Cagar Alam Gunung Mutis) covers an area of about 12.000 ha from the Mutis-Miomaffo Protection Forest complex. Gunung (mount) Mutis 2.427m is itself the highest mountain on West-Timor. The area of the Gunung Mutis reserve falls within the two districts North Central Timor (Timor Tengah Utara) and South Central Timor (Timor Tengah Selatan). The protection forest consists of unadulterated stands of Eucalyptus urophylla and grass-lands and several small rivers draining in all directions. WWF Indonesia has been active in the area since 1993/94 and has an office all the way up in a village just outside the protected area.

The forested hilly terrain of the Gunung Mutis reserve is a critical watershed for the island of Timor and has an important role in culture as well as economy of the fourteen villages located in and around the protected forest. There are two small villages within the protected forest, Nenas is even within the nature reserve and Nuapin is just north of Nenas, but several villages land overlaps with both the protection forest as well as the nature reserve. The fourteen villages, nine of which are located in South Central Timor and the remaining five in North Central Timor, has a total population of about 25.000. The hilly or mountainous area have relatively fertile soils and moderate rainfall, and is thus a relatively good region for agriculture, with the reserve covering some of the most productive lands. Gunung Mutis is still believed to provide habitat for most of the native Timorese mammals and its 217 bird species.

The Meto are the indigenous peoples of Gunung Mutis, speaking mollo-miomafo a dialect of the Atoni language. The Gunung Mutis habitants customarily believe that their ancestors actually came from Gunung Mutis. The Meto people is believed to have occupied the lands around Gunung Mutis for more than 13.000 years as hunters and gatherers and further to have began domesticating livestock about 4.500 years ago. Still the lopo traditional grass thatched houses are seen in all the villages in the area while of course also here the more modern forms of housing are taking over. Tin roofing and wooden walls are the common way of building even in the remotest villages these days.

Not to forget are also Ikat weavings famous throughout Nusa Tenggara Timur. Here up in the mountains especially fine weavings are found, local handicraft that is common to make in almost every household. A sarong size Ikat can take up to several months to complete for a village woman. The patterns that are woven into the Ikat is not merely ornamental. Local people can read from a Ikat ‘sarong’ about the persons rank in society, clan belonging etc.

Dressed in Ikat (woven cloth)
Dressed in Ikat (woven cloth), west timor indonesia. Photo © Narve Rio

Farmers in the area, most people that is, cultivate corn, cassava and potatoes as staple foods, and vegetables and other cash crops such as red onion, garlic, pineapple and fruit trees. Coffee as you would find dominating similar altitudes in East Timor does not have any place within the confines of the protection forest and natural reserve. Sandalwood used to be a valuable asset for the populations throughout the island of Timor, but diminishing reserves makes it of rather low importance these days. Livestock is though another important and highly traditional component of the rural economy and culture, and an estimated 14.000 cattle is believed to roam freely in the forest zone.

As a curiosity it can be mentioned that bride prices used to be and still is related to the wealth of owning buffaloes. In certain instances an unmarried woman will carry a necklace indicating “how many buffaloes she is worth”. Marriages are not arranged by parental force at all, love rules the selection of spouse, meaning that if he cant pay the five or so buffaloes for the girl of his choice he’ll have to wait to marry her, or, to live and work with her parents on her parents land until he can make the payment!

Customarily Gunung Mutis is divided into three zones where various resource management instruments applied until recently and still to a certain extent. The first zone nuni le’u is strongly related to ancestral origin, where access is restricted and where sacred rituals may be performed by the permissive clan along with collection of medicinal plants and purely extractive activities. The nais talas zone also have restrictions to it with respect to conversion, but in this zone hunting and collection of forest products including timber and sandalwood is legal with the blessing of the usif i.e. the king and the assisting tobe the traditional clan leader. In the suf ma autuf zone forest can be converted for virtually any use with the blessing of the usif and the tobe.

For the Meto the spiritual relationship with nature was and still is of great significance to daily life. Nature is believed to be reflected in man, and vice versa, and most important is probably the centring on ancestral spirits and myths of ancestral origin. As for their natural resource zones the Atoni believe in three divine forces. Uis Neno, Uis Pah and Apinat Aklahat, respectively relating to the heaven, the earth and to the ultimate force. The way to all these forces are through the ancestors. For example not long ago, thirty years or so until the missionaries arrived, peoples hair would symbolise the forest and the wealth of the forest. Large and curly hairdo’s was common until catholic and protestant churches established in the villages, and literally banned this form of adherence to “animist beliefs”. In Meto beliefs soil is considered more or less the “source of life” to the incarnation media of crops and food plants. This means that agricultural crops are the embodiment of ancestors and still there can bee seen ritual ceremonies in all phases of agriculture. The concept of le’u mentioned above which means holy or sacred is a force that can be either dangerous or favourable. Anything can transform to le’u as a result of a ceremony.

Gunung Mutis foothills to the south
Gunung Mutis foothills to the south, with a view to Gunung Lumu (1375 m) in the background. Photo © Narve Rio

The area of Gunung Mutis has been under restrictions from long before the establishment of the protection forest and the nature reserve. The Dutch established strict rules for the indigenous populations use of the area by for example banning hunting and certain forms of shifting cultivation. Still, heavy extraction of forest resources including sandalwood continued and escalated during the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. In 1953, the Indonesian Government started rehabilitating the area. The depletion of the sandalwood stands nevertheless escalated as late as during the 60ties much due to the erosion of traditional structures in society following the Christian missionaries work in the area.

In 1983, the 12.000 hectares of Gunung Mutis was declared a nature reserve. Gunung Mutis National Reserve can easily be reached by buses from Walikota bus station in Kupang to Soe, and further from Soe to Fatumnasi with minibus. An 8-km road through the reserve connects Fatumnasi to Nenas (1.500m.) over a high mountain pass

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. A beautiful walk in spectacular surroundings!!

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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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