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2013 Prize: Q&A with Aleta Baun

June 18, 2013

By organizing hundreds of local villagers to peacefully occupy marble mining sites in “weaving protests,” 2013 Goldman Prize recipient Aleta Baun stopped the destruction of sacred forestland on Mutis Mountain on the island of Timor.

Tell us about the Mollo people, your way of life and your spiritual connection to the land.

Our livelihood is based on farming, and we depend on locally grown food. Women need the forest for medicines, herbs and dyes for weaving. The Mollo people have a spiritual connection to the land and believe that everything is connected. We say that “land is flesh, water is blood, stone is bones, forest is veins and hair.” In fact, we take our family names from these elements – for example, Baun is a combination of our words for stone and water.

Thus, we believe if we are separated from any one of these natural elements, or if any of the elements are destroyed, we start to die and lose our identity, so we find it very important to protect the land. I was taught as a child that the plants have their own souls and spirits, so they should be protected.

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How did you build your campaign in protest of the mining, and what inspired the protest taking the form of women weaving?

Beginning in 1996, I observed the mining companies clearing trees and stone in our mountains. In 1999, a few other village women and I decided we had to act to stop the mining. We felt the only way to get support was to go from house to house and village to village and reach as many people as possible with our message. The homes and villages were remote and we walked sometimes six hours between villages.

We convinced people to join us by reminding them of our cultural belief that we cannot survive without all the elements of nature. We also emphasized to women that the forest provides the dyes for our weaving, which is a very important part of our lives. That inspired us to showcase our weaving in the form of a peaceful protest starting in 2006, in which about 150 women participated.

What role do women play in Mollo culture, and how did the Mollo men support your protests against the mining companies?

In the Mollo culture, women are expected to be homemakers and tend to their families, but when we began our protest, women realized that they could do more – take a stand and be heard. Women are also the recognized landowners in the Mollo culture, and this right was reawakened for those women who hadn’t been actively speaking out to protect their land.

The Mollo people believed it was important to have the women on the frontlines of the protests and act as the negotiators because we are the ones who use the forest (food, medicine, dyes) to survive, and therefore were the most passionate about the cause. The men were fully supportive of us, but did not position themselves at the forefront of the campaign because they would have likely had clashes or conflicts with the mining companies and been the target of attacks.

What are you doing now to ensure that the traditional territory of the Mollo people and other indigenous communities in the region is protected by law?

I am working with the Mollo people and other indigenous communities in the area to map our territory. The goal is to claim our land and ensure it is protected by law, and to conserve and reforest the area that was destroyed by the mining operations. We especially want to conserve the upstream region of our territory because it is a watershed for the entire island. We are considering a joint title for our three communities and placing the land under collective ownership of the communities.

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