The modern origins of traditional agriculture in Timor Leste

Date of publication
The origin of swidden systems is typically portrayed as pre-colonial, pre-nationalist and pre-developmentalist tradition, subsequently interrupted and eroded by colonial exploitation and post-colonial technoscience in favour of market agriculture. A recent counter-position to this 'anteriority model' presents swidden as reactionary 'refuge agriculture' in search of remote locations to circumvent state accountability (Scott 2009). A third model traces swidden agricultural processes as a 'dual economy' of both subsistence and commodity production. This paper examines these approaches through a study of maize and rice in eastern (Portuguese) Timor, where a particular type of environmentally damaging swidden system and colonialism are shown to be co-emergent. Accommodating new archival data and adding detail to the established position on Timor's agricultural history, it is proposed that the early 20th century was an important phase in the extension and dominance of maize in Portuguese Timor; and while far-reaching modification to rice cultivation is generally associated with the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, it is shown that the early 20th century was also a major developmental period for this grain. It is further suggested that dynamics of agricultural change have differed across the colonial divide between Portuguese and Dutch Timor. The paper calls for more comparative research on the divided island of Timor.