Finding a Balance in Timor-Leste’s Blue Economy

Ted Alcorn

Timor-Leste’s most precious resources may well be the crystalline waters that ring it, where favorable geography and limited development have fostered a uniquely diverse maritime ecosystem. The question facing the country is what role these waters will play, and what legacy they will provide.

Image © Andy Mann

Ted Alcorn

Image © Andy Mann

In Timor-Leste, as in many places, natural resources have been a mixed blessing.

The island’s forests—specifically, its stock of sandalwood—attracted Portuguese colonizers in the mid 1500s and then Indonesian invaders in 1975, who logged the valuable trees nearly to eradication. But the forest was also the protector of Timor-Leste’s liberation fighters, who sheltered within it for 24 years of Indonesian military occupation, constructing roofs and beds from bamboo and palm.

In the twentieth century, the impoverished country tapped oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea for billions of dollars of much-needed revenue, accumulating a sovereign wealth fund that, relative to the size of its economy, rivals those of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Norway. But the country has become one of the most petroleum-export dependent in the world, drawing 95 percent of its government revenues from an oil and gas field that is nearing depletion, and it is considering risking its savings on the development of a new gas field that many experts say is unworkable.

The term “blue economy” refers to sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth and improved livelihoods and jobs, while maintaining ocean ecosystem health · Andy Mann
The island’s most precious treasures may well be the crystalline waters that ring it, where favorable geography and limited development have fostered a uniquely diverse maritime ecosystem.

The relatively protected reefs are home to a record-breaking number of unique fish species, and the deep waters that abut the island are a migratory corridor for turtles and rays. Scientists have also reported one of the world’s highest concentrations of dolphins and whales.

Developed sustainably, this blue economy could provide income for Timor-Leste’s coastal communities, diversify national revenues, and protect the oceanic environment for future generations. But managed poorly, it could generate conflict between competing residents, despoil the environment, and fail to benefit the local population. The question facing the country is what role these waters will play, and what legacy they will provide.

Timor-Leste’s relatively protected reefs are home to a record-breaking number of unique fish species · Cristina Mittermeier

Threats to marine life

Rui Pinto grew up in Mozambique, but his mother Ana Pessoa Pinto never let him forget he was Timorese. An attorney involved in Timor-Leste’s liberation movement, his mother had been living in Africa as a refugee when she met his dad, and she encouraged her children to put together theatrical performances and poetry recitals of Timorese works to familiarize them with their own heritage. As Timor-Leste moved toward independence in 2002, she helped to draft its constitution, then returned to take a role in the government of the new country. Rui, who had begun by studying veterinary science, was more reluctant to return. But he was ultimately drawn back to contribute in his own way.

The newborn nation faced many persistent challenges. In the wake of independence, Indonesian-backed militias had destroyed much of the country’s health and education infrastructure. The Timorese had to establish democratic norms and build their own government institutions after more than 400 years of foreign rule. Poverty was rampant: the majority of the population depended on subsistence agriculture and fishing, and many were food insecure. Conditions have been improving over time, but as of 2016, 46 percent of Timorese children under five were stunted due to chronic malnutrition.

Children play among the colorful gravestones in Santa Cruz Cemetery in the capital, Dili. On November 12, 1991 Indonesian soldiers fired on a peaceful memorial procession for Sebastião Gomes heading from Motael Church to the cemetery, killing more than 250 civilians · Andy Mann

Rui’s starting point was ecology, even as he traced out its connections to public health and economic justice. He went on to study zoology and environmental management, and saw how displacement that resulted from colonization and conflict had broken the bonds between some Timorese people and the places they lived, so that communities relied on natural resources that they had lost sight of how to manage. Rebuilding that relationship was essential to the prosperity of the new nation. “People need nature to thrive,” he told me. “We can only grow as a country if we manage the natural resources we have.”

In his current role as an Environmental Management Expert for the Oecusse region of the country, Rui is keenly aware of the various threats to its marine areas. He said that roadworks circumnavigating the island have harmed the marine habitats. For example, he described how a poorly engineered drainage is channeling monsoon waters out to a once popular dive site called Dili Rock, permanently damaging the reef there.

Timor-Leste’s marine areas face various threats, including damage to reefs from poorly engineered drainages, as well as plastic pollution · Andy Mann
Commercial fishing boats from other countries also routinely flout local laws by harvesting from Timor-Leste’s waters, and face few repercussions for it.

According to Manuel Mendes, Country Director for the environmental nonprofit Conservation International, vessels primarily from Vietnam and Indonesia pillage some 250,000 kilograms of fish each year. 

And Rui said even coastal communities’ artisanal fishing practices can deplete local fish stocks if they remain unregulated and target spawning grounds. He has watched the island “fish down the food chain,” exhausting the carnivores such as groupers and then targeting herbivores, altering the ecological balance. “The impacts of removing these species from reefs can be tremendous.”

Other scientists agree. Karen Edyvane, a coastal marine resources and management specialist who works in Timor-Leste, said, “Timor-Leste is very much at a critical crossroad in its development journey—with enormous stakes for the sustainability of its coastal ecosystems and the future well-being of its people.”

Even coastal communities’ artisanal fishing practices can deplete local fish stocks if they remain unregulated and target spawning grounds · Andy Mann
“Timor-Leste is very much at a critical crossroad in its development journey—with enormous stakes for the sustainability of its coastal ecosystems and the future well-being of its people,” said Karen Edvayne, a coastal marine resources and management specialist who works in Timor-Leste · Cristina Mittermeier
Commercial fishing boats from other countries routinely flout local laws by harvesting from Timor-Leste’s waters, and face few repercussions for it · Cristina Mittermeier

Challenges for ocean development

Fizzy Moslim could see how precious Timor-Leste’s marine environment was on her very first dive there. Born in Malaysia, she had fallen in love with the ocean and began training as a divemaster in 2010. The work had taken her to New Zealand and Oman, but in 2016 a friend told her about a job opening in Timor-Leste, at one of the island’s three dive shops.

On the day of her arrival, a new colleague invited her to join a shore dive. She recalled how they simply turned off the airport road and walked out into the water: “And already there’s a fringe coral reef, a burst of coral and colors.” The diversity of species they saw was mind-blowing, she said.

Born in Malaysia, Fizzy Moslim has worked as a divemaster in Timor-Leste since 2016 · Andy Mann

Over the coming years she got to know the waters well, and even as new dive shops opened up, she saw the island’s potential for more. “It’s so unique, and it’s hard to find somewhere so pristine and undeveloped,” she said. But she was mindful of the challenges of building a sustainable tourism industry, one that was low volume and high value and that truly benefited the local community. Even as she became well known among the small community of dive operators, and served as an informal spokesperson in conversations about environmental conservation and sustainable development, she also spent a lot of time meeting with local communities. 

She recalled conversing with local communities on the offshore island of Atauro, which boasts some of the country’s top diving spots. “They’re very vocal and progressive with how they want to see the island develop,” she said. “They know they don’t want over developments. They don’t want to go the way of Bali.” She referred to Mario’s Place, one of the first eco-lodges on the island. Mario Gomes, the son of a local fisherman, earned a degree in marine biology and then saved his salary from managing a fisheries program to construct his first accommodation. Having expanded the lodge over the years, he now typically hosts enough guests to employ seven local staff. 

Mario also works for the non-profit organization World Fish and, in 2016, helped the local community adopt a customary agreement known as Tara Bandu to better regulate use of the marine environment.

The community agreed to limit certain types of activities in an allotted marine protected area while allowing others, so even as they fish less, they can collect fees directly from tourists who come to dive.

Now, more than a dozen communities on Atauro have adopted similar agreements. “I feel proud,” Mario said, “as it was the base that started from us and my work.” 

A blue economy must work for the long-standing coastal subsistence communities in Timor-Leste, while ensuring effective regulations are in place to protect the environment · Cristina Mittermeier

Noting that many of the tour operators still have foreign owners, Karen nevertheless credits the island with prioritizing local communities and people, by developing activities that, before Covid-19, attracted a diverse swath of ecotourists and volunteers, many of whom lodge with local residents and thus contribute significantly to household incomes. A blue economy must work for these long-standing coastal subsistence communities, she said. “If ocean protection and development are to be sustainable, benefits from development must flow both to the national economy and the wider population.”

But the complex web of interrelationships poses challenges. Rivalries have emerged when some areas attracted more divers than others, and the fees they paid were not divided equally among the island’s communities. Government ministries tasked with managing the country’s public resources have themselves been reorganized, their responsibilities scattered and reformulated. And throughout, Timor-Leste’s people have retained a well-founded skepticism of outsiders. “There’s a lot of distrust,” said Fizzy. “They’ve been let down or taken advantage of so many times.” In her view, what is needed is clearer guidance from the country’s highly regarded revolutionary leaders, who could help to give the people a better sense of direction. 

Timor-Leste’s tourism industry is still small, and for the time being has been further suppressed by Covid-19. But it will inevitably rebound, and Fizzy hopes that effective regulations are in place to protect the environment. “The clock is ticking, and the time to get things right is shrinking.”

The customary agreement known as Tara Bandu better regulates use of the marine environment by limiting certain types of activities in an allotted marine protected area while allowing others, so even as members of the local community fish less, they can collect fees directly from tourists who come to dive · Andy Mann

Keys to success

Experts say that to effectively manage the development of Timor-Leste’s marine areas, enriching coastal communities who already depend on them, increasing their accessibility to tourists, and protecting the fragile ecosystems, will be a delicate, complex, and lengthy process. Success is by no means certain. 

Protecting the reefs and seagrass beds, addressing sedimentation and runoff, and curbing unregulated commercial fishing are all important. Rui believes stopping commercial fishing for an agreed amount of time is necessary. And Manuel explains that only with a single unified marine protected area will it be possible to cooperate with neighboring countries like Australia to enforce the measures. “With the small marine protected area, it isn’t enough to stop illegal fishing,” he said. 

Protecting the reefs and seagrass beds, addressing sedimentation and runoff, and curbing unregulated commercial fishing are all important · Cristina Mittermeier

Charles Scheiner, an American who has lived in Timor-Leste for more than 15 years, said none of this can be achieved without the input of the local people. “The Timorese people struggled hard and suffered much to achieve their political independence, and they should be involved at every level in any project in their country—as decision-makers, workers, and shareholders.” Charles has lived that philosophy in his own work: the name of the independent, non-partisan think tank he helped found there, La'o Hamutuk, means “walking together” in Tetum, reflecting the organization’s non-hierarchical structure and the equal salaries paid to Timorese and foreign staff.

Rui said that in his previous years in conservation, he underestimated how crucial it was to truly partner with local communities. “We were so focused in delivering programs and doing improved management and establishing co-op fisheries that we failed to see the importance of this work.” But he had also seen how proud his countrymen could be if one affirmed how beautiful and unique their marine habitats were, leading to a “very mobilized, active community engaged in conservation and management.”

“The Timorese people struggled hard and suffered much to achieve their political independence, and they should be involved at every level in any project in their country—as decision-makers, workers, and shareholders,” according to Charles Scheiner, an American who has lived in Timor-Leste for more than 15 years · Andy Mann

Rui feels hopeful when he sees the younger generation getting involved.

Half of Timor-Leste’s population was born after the independence referendum in 1999, and are coming of age with a new understanding of the intrinsic value of the environment.

One of the young people Rui has worked with is Potenzo Lopes, a 25-year-old from the coastal town of Com, who describes himself as “crazy about conservation.” Since studying animal science at university in Dili, he has been documenting violations of environmental protections with photography and video. In an email, he explained how his father introduced him to the reefs and marine wildlife and invested him with respect for both. “Personally, I believe that Mother Nature has given us many wonderful gifts that not only help us to survive but also to live one’s life in a prosperous way,” he wrote.

Half of Timor-Leste’s population was born after the independence referendum in 1999, and are coming of age with a new understanding of the intrinsic value of the environment · Cristina Mittermeier

Preserving the island’s marine habitat is not just a material goal, said Rui: it touches on something much deeper than that. “A reef is important because it’s the habitat of the fish we eat, but the reef also plays an important role in how we imagine the ocean. It would be completely ridiculous for a Timorese to draw the ocean as a big and empty place. You would put coral reefs, you would put seagrasses. So losing a reef, a patch of reef, a coral form—it changes things.”

Contributors

Ted Alcorn

Writer

Ted Alcorn is a writer based in New York City.

Fizzy Moslim

Divemaster

Born in Malaysia, Fizzy Moslim had fallen in love with the ocean and began training as a divemaster in 2010. Fizzy spent time working in New Zealand and Oman before relocating to Timor-Leste in 2016 to take a job at one of the island’s three dive shops.

Karen Edvayne

Coastal Marine Resources & Management Specialist

Karen Edyvane is a coastal marine resources and management specialist, with extensive experience in coastal marine planning, policy development, and management. Since 2006, her work has largely focussed on tropical coastal-marine conservation and resources, in addition to livelihood development partnerships (and capacity-building) projects in northern Australia, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia.

Manuel Mendes

Country Director, Conservation International

Manuel Mendes is Country Director for the environmental nonprofit Conservation International in Timor-Leste.

Mario Gomes

Mario’s Place & WorldFish

Mario Gomes, the son of a local fisherman in Timor-Leste, earned a degree in marine biology and then saved his salary from managing a fisheries program to construct his first accommodation, Mario’s Place. Having expanded the lodge over the years, he now typically hosts enough guests to employ seven local staff. Mario also works for the nonprofit organization World Fish.

Rui Pinto

Environmental Management Expert

Rui Pinto is Environmental Management Expert for the Oecusse region of Timor-Leste. Raised in Mozambique, Rui’s mother is Timorese. After Timor-Leste declared independence, Rui moved to his mother’s homeland, where he has lived and worked ever since.

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