COM, East Timor – The tiny country of East Timor is surrounded by some of the most magnificent and untouched marine life in the world. Off the island of Atauro alone, researchers have discovered 253 reef fish species, surpassing the world record.
But 16 years after gaining its independence after decades of bloody occupation, East Timor remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia. As politicians struggle to find new economic streams like oil pumping and coffee exports, none have proved powerful enough to raise the country out of poverty.
The question for conservationists and government officials is clear: How can the country develop tourism and keep its pristine beauty?
“It’s a hard thing,” said Manuel Mendes, head of the Department of Protected Areas and National Parks for East Timor, noting his country’s susceptibility to climate change and drought. “We know that if we just leave it all alone, it will soon be gone.”
Around the world, coral is being wiped out. The conservation group WWF said almost a quarter of coral reefs worldwide are damaged beyond repair. The rest are under threat from rising sea temperatures, harmful fishing practices and vicious tourism.
“We don’t want to end up like Bali,” said Trudiann Dale, the East Timor country director for Conservation International, referring to the nearby tourist center’s “garbage emergency” last year, when nearly 100 tons of garbage washed up on the island’s beaches.
Since declaring independence in 2002, after suffering years of harsh occupation by the Indonesian military, East Timor has been struggling to find its feet. “During the Indonesian time, soldiers would throw grenades in the reef to fish,” said Zanuari Marteans, a 60-year-old fisherman from Atauro Island. “We hid in the villages and watched them destroy. We could do nothing.”
After independence, the country had one of the highest fertility rates in the region, with almost seven births per mother. Sixteen years later, most of the population is younger than 25, with unemployment on the rise.
Since 2004, almost 80 percent of its gross domestic product has come from the oil field in the Timor Sea, where reserves are projected to run dry by 2023. In March, ex-rebel leader and independence hero Xanana Gusmão led negotiations with Australia, expanding East Timor’s sea border and giving hopes for an extended deal worth billions more. But discussions on where the oil will be pumped continue, and East Timor is struggling to find jobs for the growing population.
The reef development is no accident. For generations, fishermen have safeguarded their supplies of fish by creating marine protected areas. Communities would agree on the boundaries, mark them off and ban fishing there: no nets being dragged around, no rumbling boat motors. In these areas, fish and coral develop untouched, so future generations have a chance to fish them.
In 2016, the government started putting these practices into law. But the budget is minuscule and barely covers rangers’ salaries. Accordingly, much of the work around the reefs has remained with the fishing communities.
Tourism has remained starkly low. Roads are rocky and inaccessible, and flights are sparse and expensive. Yet in parts of the country, big-money hotels have started contracting developments. Government proposals have included turning East Timor into a Macau-like tax haven and casino destination.
But for the fishermen here, the weight of the preservation will remain a central part of their lives.
“These fish are our life, and the reef is their house,” said Marteans. “If someone has no house, how can they live?”