Last month, I felt truly lucky to be one of the first CI staff to visit our newest country program on the beautiful island of Timor. I normally work out of an office in Singapore, and this was also my first real trip out to a CI field site. I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.
Timor-Leste is a post-conflict country that spent much of the last few decades under Indonesian occupation, during which an estimated 20% of the population lost their lives. In 2002, with the help of the United Nations, Timor-Leste was finally granted its independence, making it one of the youngest countries in the world today. It’s also one of the poorest, with a Human Development Index ranking of 147th out of 187 countries.
Because of its history, much of Timor-Leste’s environment has yet to be explored. However, given that the island is situated in the Wallacea biodiversity hotspot between Australia and Asia and in the heart of the Coral Triangle, we know that the lands and waters of Timor-Leste are home to potentially globally significant biodiversity and high rates of species found nowhere else in the world.
CI is the first international environment NGO registered in Timor-Leste. With the support of USAID under the Coral Triangle Support Partnership, over the past few years we’ve run a successful marine conservation program there in collaboration with the communities of Com, Tutuala and Lore.
“What would make communities partake in conservation efforts when they can maximize short-term gains by catching more fish?” I wondered. Rui, the project manager, explained that the community had noticed that their fish numbers were dwindling, and were eager for solutions to manage their natural resources more sustainably. The analogy that came to my mind was not wanting to pee in your own swimming pool —but I caught my tongue.
Later I went snorkeling with Leo, a spear fisherman. Truthfully, he and Rui charged ahead like dolphins while I trailed 10 meters behind. Despite hunting around for half an hour, there were no fish large enough to spear, and Leo refused to catch the smaller ones. He understood the importance of letting fish mature and repopulate. I just hoped that he had saved enough catch from previous days in the new freezer that our program had supplied him with.
CI has had great success in engaging communities to protect their own natural resources, because it is these communities who depend on their environment the most for their daily needs and livelihoods. The difficulty is when encroachers from elsewhere come in to poach these resources — when the visitors come and “pee in your pool,” so to speak. They take whatever they want and leave the communities to deal with the repercussions.
A month before I arrived in Timor-Leste, an illegal fishing vessel entered the waters of Timor-Leste and cleaned out an entire population of Trochus, a valuable seashell in the food export market, from a “no-take zone” located within the Nino Konis Santana National Park. Although this is technically a protected area — in fact, the country’s first and only national park — criminals don’t play by the rules. The total value of their loot was a cool US$ 20,000, which is a fortune to the community that had spent the last two years allowing the Trochus population to regenerate.
Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of this tale is that the illegal vessel was operating in full view of the community, who could only watch as the boat’s crew made off with their ill-gotten gains with impunity. Confronting these illegal fishers would have been tantamount to a death wish, as they were armed with weapons they would not hesitate to use.
Thankfully, we’ve managed to secure video footage of the illegal vessel, and CI is supporting the communities in advocating to the Timorese government to put a formal protection system in place within the park, including coast guards. But with the ocean being as vast as it is and resources limited in this poor country, this is one battle that has yet to be won.
Lynn Tang is the communications manager for CI’s Asia-Pacific Field Division, headquartered in Singapore. Look out for a second blog on Timor-Leste, which will reveal findings from a recent marine biodiversity survey conducted there.