People & Culture

The National Psyche

Timor-Leste’s identity is firmly rooted in its survival of extreme hardship and foreign occupation. As a consequence of the long and difficult struggle for independence, the people of Timor-Leste are profoundly politically aware – not to mention proud and loyal. While there is great respect for elders and church and community leaders, there lurks a residual suspicion surrounding foreign occupiers, most recently in the form of the UN (not to mention Australian oil bosses). Religious beliefs (Catholic and animist) also greatly inform the national consciousness.


Most Timorese lead a subsistence lifestyle: what is farmed (or caught) is eaten. While the birth rate continues to decline, large families (with an average of 5.5 children per mother) are still common, and infant mortality remains high. Malnutrition and food insecurity is widespread. Infrastructure remains limited.

Outside of Dili, family life often exists in simple thatched huts, though more stable brick structures are becoming common. NGOs and aid projects have had mostly limited lifetimes and the ability to rise above poverty is a huge challenge for many as bad roads and drought or floods play havoc. Family cars and utility trucks are often full to the brim on weekends with those heading to the family events that form the backbone of Timorese life.


Timor-Leste has at least a dozen indigenous groups, the largest being the Tetun, who live around Suai, Dili and Viqueque. The next largest group is the Mambai, who live in the mountains of Maubisse, Ainaro and Same. The Kemak live in the Ermera and Bobonaro districts; the Bunak also live in Bobonaro, and their territory extends into West Timor and the Suai area. The Baikeno live in the area around Pantemakassar, and the Fataluku people are famous for their high-peaked houses in the area around Lospalos. More groups are scattered among the interior mountains.


Religion is an integral part of daily life for most Timorese. Recent estimates indicate 98% of Timor-Leste’s population is Catholic (though many observe the faith alongside animist beliefs), 1% Protestant and less than 1% Muslim.

Indigenous beliefs revolve around an earth mother, from whom all humans are born and shall return after death, and her male counterpart, the god of the sky or sun. These are accompanied by a complex web of spirits from ancestors and nature. The matan d’ok (medicine man) is the village mediator with the spirits; he can divine the future and cure illness. Many people believe in various forms of black magic.


Music & Dance

The Timorese love a party, and celebrate with tebe (dancing) and singing. Music has been passed down through the years and changed little during Indonesian times. Traditional trance-like drumming is used in ceremonies, while local rock and hip-hop groups are popular. Country-and-western style is popular, too, and features plenty of guitar use and the usual lovelorn themes.


Each region has its own style of tais (woven cloth) and they’re usually used as skirts or shawls for men (tais mane) or sewn up to form a tube skirt/dress for women (tais feto).


The Land

Timor-Leste consists of the eastern half of the island of Timor, Ataúro and Jaco Islands, and the exclave of Oecusse on the north coast, 70km to the west and surrounded by Indonesian West Timor.

Once part of the Australian continental shelf, Timor fully emerged from the ocean only four million years ago, and is therefore composed mainly of marine sediment, principally limestone. Rugged mountains, a product of the collision with the Banda Trench to the north, run the length of the country, the highest of which is Mt Ramelau (2963m).


Timor-Leste is squarely in the area known as Wallacea, a kind of crossover zone between Asian and Australian plants and animals, and one of the most biologically distinctive areas on earth.

The north coast is a global hot spot for whale and dolphin activity, and its coral reefs are home to a diverse range of marine life. Species spotted include dugongs, blue whales and dolphins. More than 260 species of bird have been recorded in its skies. The eastern fringe of the nation was declared a national park partly because of its rich bird life: it’s home to honeyeaters, critically endangered yellow-crested cockatoos and endangered wetar ground-doves. The number of mammals and reptiles in the wild is limited, though monkeys, civets, crocodiles and snakes make appearances.

Environmental Issues

Timor-Leste’s only national park, the Nino Konis Santana National Park, was declared in 2008 – a 123,000-hectare parcel of land (including some tropical forest) and sea at the country’s eastern tip, also incorporating Jaco Island and Tutuala. Most of the country, however, is suffering from centuries of deforestation, and erosion is a huge problem: roads and even villages have been known to slip away.

In 2017 marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd found Chinese-owned boats targeting sharks for their fins in Timor-Leste's waters, and brought international attention to the issue. Criticism was centered on officials who defended the practice, and the contracts that allowed it. Much of Timor-Leste's waters remain unprotected, including seagrass areas – home to dugongs – and country's reefs and mangrove areas.