They also share a deep, spiritual connection to the environment—so deep that Timor people are named after soil, water, stone and trees, which are likened to their flesh, blood, bones and hair. For the indigenous peoples on the island, the destruction of the environment would mean losing a part of their identity.
In the 1980s, the district government issued permits to mining companies to cut marble stones from the mountains in Mollo territory. Local government officials did so illegally without consulting local villagers, whom they saw as obstacles to development programs. As deforestation and mining took hold, landslides became commonplace, polluting the waters and bringing great hardship to the villagers living downstream.
Aleta Baun, an indigenous Mollo, was born to a family of farmers. Having lost her mother at a young age, she was raised by other women and elders in the village who taught her to respect the environment as a source of their spiritual identity and livelihood.
As an individual whose life was shaped by the values of these elders, Baun naturally came into a leadership role in her community, sharing her traditional knowledge and eventually becoming known as “Mama Aleta.” When mining companies started clearing the forests and cutting out marble from the mountains, she understood their activities as a threat to the Mollo people’s rights to their territory—and their survival.
This core belief that the villagers’ lives cannot be separated from nature became the key message that Mama Aleta brought to other communities around the mountain. It began as a small movement with three other women. The group traveled on foot from one remote village to another—a journey that would sometimes take more than 6 hours.
Mama Aleta’s work made her a target for the mining interests and local authorities, who put a price on her head. After surviving a particularly close assassination attempt, Mama Aleta went into hiding in the forest with her baby. Several other villagers were repeatedly arrested and badly beaten.
Despite the violent intimidation, Mama Aleta grew the movement to include hundreds of villagers. It culminated in a weaving occupation where 150 women spent a year sitting on the marble rocks at the mining site, quietly weaving their traditional cloth in protest. Because women were traditionally responsible for foraging food, dye and medicine from the mountains, it was important for them to lead the campaign. In a remarkable role reversal, while the women protested at the mine, the men provided domestic support at home, cooking, cleaning and caring for the children.
In the face of the villagers’ peaceful and sustained presence, marble mining became an increasingly untenable endeavor for the companies involved. Public awareness of the weaving occupation was growing, and Indonesian government officials took notice. By 2010, the mining companies, reacting to the pressure, halted mining at all four sites within the Mollo territories and abandoned their operations.
Mama Aleta is now working with communities across West Timor to map their traditional forests. The effort is a preemptive strategy to establish indigenous territorial rights and protect their land from future mining projects and threats from commercial agriculture and oil and gas development. She’s also leading the way to create economic opportunities for the villagers through sustainable farming and enterprises that generate income from weaving and other activities.