In Timor-Leste, alcohol is used in various contexts, whether socially as part of a family gathering or celebration, or as part of a cultural ceremony. Whilst many people report to enjoy its effects, this relies on consumption in a responsible manner. Dependent, in part, on the context in which it is used, alcohol can have negative effects. Research undertaken by BELUN indicates that, in many cases, alcohol can cause social occasions to turn violent, and can escalate existing tensions.
Whilst Timor-Leste has traditions that have incorporated the use of alcohol, this entails a degree of risk. Discussions of barlake, often facilitated by consumption of locally-made palm wine, or tua, were reported as having a tendency to end in drunkenness and conflict. Similarly, many research participants spoke of the conclusion to agricultural cycles, such as planting and harvesting, as being marked by social use of alcohol. Whether for a feast or other formal ceremony, those consulted by BELUN noted that there was rarely any regulation of alcohol intake by convention or authority, resulting in widespread overconsumption and often violence.
From an economic perspective, alcohol was reported as being used to promote negotiation of business interests or the settlement of debts. It is also a source of revenue in its own right, with traditionally-produced alcohol such as tua fetching a good price at market, enough to support a family. Conversely, research turned up many stories of families where the husband and/or adult sons spent income on alcohol rather than on necessities. Whilst this is an issue in its own right, it was further reported as a precursor to domestic tensions and assaults.
Research participants reported that, among the reasons they might consume alcohol were to reduce stress or enjoy a social situation, or perhaps to aid sleep. Whilst there was an admission that such consumption across society might be a risk factor for conflict and, especially, domestic violence, there was less understanding of the long- term health impacts. Medical experts consulted in the course of this research pointed to the fact that habitual over-consumption can lead to chronic illness, decreased working productivity and can also add challenges to family life. Misunderstandings over the impact of alcohol on pregnancy and other aspects of women’s health were also revealed as common, with many self-medicating rather than seeking appropriate care from a clinic or hospital.
BELUN also found a worrying degree of drug use, often in tandem with alcohol consumption. Although there were reports of the use of locally-grown plant substances, and some limited reference to opiates, amphetamines seem to be the most common form. According to participant reports, these may be gaining acceptance (largely among youth) within the same social context previously reserved for alcohol, and indeed may be mixed (even sold) together for ease of transport and consumption.
In order to reduce the risks associated with alcohol abuse, it is clear that the main intervention – from Government and other development actors – must come in the form of further education. Whilst NGOs like PRADET are already increasing knowledge among juvenile offenders and through police training, understanding of health impacts and the links to conflict remains low. Also, with cheap, high alcohol content spirits entering the country, often illegally, and the quality of locally-produced alcohol varying greatly, there may be a case for greater regulation and border control. Given the role that alcohol currently plays as a common precursor to violence, there is an inherent benefit to encouraging restraint, and more responsible drinking.