Community-Led Marine Conservation in Timor-Leste
Laura Bielinski (2014, Architecture & Design)
As a result of a THA volunteering award, in July I was lucky enough to travel to the village of Beloi on Ataúro island, Timor-Leste for six weeks to volunteer on a marine conservation expedition with NGO Blue Ventures. Blue Ventures practice community-led marine conservation through a number of different, site-specific projects in Madagascar, Belize and Timor-Leste, all of which are bases for their marine-based eco-tourism expeditions.
Having spent the previous summer with BV in a tiny village on the South-West coast of Madagascar, where they have been working for 16 years, I was eager to visit their newest expedition base in Timor-Leste, set up in 2016, to be involved in the establishment of a much younger project.
The newest country in the world
With the knowledge that Timor-Leste is newest country in the world at the forefront of my mind, when I landed in its capital’s tiny airport, I was expecting very little in the way of development: far from the repetitive extravagant gated embassies, vastly overpriced accommodation, multitude of highend restaurants offering international cuisines, and shiny ‘Timor-Plaza’ shopping centre, complete with its own ‘skybar’ that Dili has to offer. I certainly wasn’t expecting the significant tight-knit ex-pat community that call Dili home. These surprises are a result of the UN’s long standing presence in a country which endured three decades of violence prior to its independence in 2002. After a battle to end Portuguese colonialism, the country was invaded almost immediately by Indonesian forces, who during the struggles in the following decades, wiped out 25% of the island’s population, and cut Timor off from the world in terms of communication and resources, which was seemingly ignored by neighbouring Australia and previous inhabitants Portugal. Timor-Leste eventually regained independence after a referendum, in which the ballot papers had to provide pictures and symbols, because the majority of the population couldn’t read or write. In learning about the country’s history and complex current position through visits to a juveniles’ graveyard, resistance museum and conversations with BV’s staff, the first few days provided a sombre but important background as to why there are such a huge number of NGOs working in Timor-Leste (too many in fact, it has been suggested) and why BV’s work is so crucial here. It was not only shocking to realise that although the atrocities were within my own living memory, until 18 months ago I hadn’t even heard of Timor-Leste, but also eye-opening to understand the immediacy of the conflict to nearly everyone I spoke to; this really hit home when our bus driver pointed to a case of the deceased’s clothes in the resistance museum and with a casual ease said ‘those were my brother’s shoes’.
After an enlightening few days in Dili, we spent the majority of the next six weeks on the nearby Ataúro Island, accessible via a two hour boat ride (on one of the occasional local ‘ferries’, or private charter speedboat) from the city’s tiny port, into which all of its supplies come, and out of which its only exports of coffee and coconuts depart. We spent our first and last two weeks of the expedition living in huts at Barry’s Place, an eco-lodge run by a long-term resident from Australia and his Timorese wife and the primary accommodation for tourists visiting Ataúro (the occasional Australian embassy worker or holidaymaker at a weekend). Barry’s serves as the base from which BV’s expedition has become established and runs from, providing infrastructure for the diving and conservation team to operate from, however with their growth, more and more elements of BV’s projects are relocating to within the village of Beloi itself, spreading wealth and aiding community engagement. A major aspect of this has been the establishment of Beloi’s homestay association, which went into operation with the expeditions running from Spring 2017. Families from the village were able to apply for a small homeimprovements loan from Blue Ventures (the size and repayment terms of which was individually calculated according to the amount and security of household income) for additions such as a door on the guests’ bedroom, and were provided with training focused on the precent of Raja Ampat in order to establish themselves as a homestay accommodation. The development of the homestays is of tremendous importance in three main ways: firstly, the household is provided with an additional, secure income from making use of their spare bedroom(s), an alternative livelihood as fish stocks deplete.
Secondly, the association as a collective creates a strong, justified voice of opposition to government plans for the unsustainable development of tourism on Ataúro, involving the displacement of villagers to make way for high-intensity resort developments and associated infrastructure, including a ridiculous 11 helipads and unfathomable damage to the island’s beautiful natural resources, both terrestrial and marine. Homestays are a bottom-up, sustainable alternative to this, much more in line with the eco-tourism objectives set out by the island’s inhabitants.
Thirdly, such strong community engagement not only on a planning scale between BV and the association, but on a small-scale between volunteers and their homestay families helps massively in the cementation of a strong and sustainable relationship between BV and not only Beloi, but all the villages of Ataúro. This is something I hadn’t grasped the importance of until my time on the expedition: before any outsider can even begin to think about suggesting changes like the implementation of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) or Fisheries Closures (which are part of the furniture now, so far down the line in Madagascar), an NGO has to build a proper relationship with a village, gain a true understanding of how they work in order to establish what is needed, and most importantly gain the trust of whole communities in order for any project to be accepted, let alone be successful. It is this philosophy that drives the bottom-up community-led conservation practiced by Blue Ventures.
Because of this, it took until the middle of the expedition for me to grasp that the really vital, and most dynamic, impact I was having on a project in such early stages of development was, put simply, just being there. At the end of our first week on the island, following several days of intense Tetun lessons, we moved in to our new homes; myself and a fellow volunteer shared the small front room of Afonso and Ada’s house, who lived with their five children and an uncountable number of goats, pigs and chickens (one of which was particularly fond of flying into the window over my bed every morning at precisely 6am, shortly before the village power cut off for the day, taking with it the tiny fans over our bed and hence any small air movement we could hope for). Afonso is a PE teacher at the district’s secondary school and one of the village pastors, meaning we would have a constant stream of visitors passing through the house, day or night, and also meant we were given particular immersion in one of the main centres of life on Ataúro: the Church.
(Almost) every Sunday we donned the smartest clothes our backpacks had to offer and would join the rest of the village in all their finery in packing into Beloi’s tiny Church. As Malae (foreigners) we would be given prime central pews with all of the village VIPs, granting us unbeatable views of the words to every hymn set against the back drop of every generic Jesus related stock photo you could imagine. Despite our entry level Tetun, we were soon more than familiar with the words for ‘God’ and ‘praise’, ‘tired’ and ‘heaven’, and gave it our all to the electronic keyboard backing and choir, often lead by Afonso. Being an extremely strong Protestant community, The church services were slightly overshadowed by an event half way through the expedition, with the wedding of the owner of the village restaurant. The entire village and beyond packed in to the tiny church one afternoon, spilling outside and down the street where we stood with our homestay family decked out in their finest – it was very touching to be brought to the wedding and looked after by our families as if we were just another daughter or son. After the service everyone flocked to the reception, hosted in a make-shift marquee outside the restaurant, complete with a stage and enough food to feed the 5000 (literally). Walking through Beloi with all of its inhabitants, followed by the happy couple standing on the back of one of the local tuktuks was very special and something I will remember forever, I am so privileged to have had the chance to join in such a special event. The reception was a mix of games, speeches, singing, more speeches and a consistent queue of people desperate for a photo with the happy couple. As a strong Protestant community, dancing is forbidden and alcohol isn’t culturally popular, so it was a very different affair to an English wedding. What was very touching to see was the importance of family values manifested in the emotion shared by everyone throughout the day; tears flowed from everyone involved from start to end.
As well as a day for church, Sundays were dry days to allow our bodies plenty of time to offgas. This gave us plenty of opportunities to explore some more of the island! Being very hilly and possessing very few forms of motorised transport, getting around Ataúro is quite difficult and other than boat, going by foot is one of the only options. Six weeks was unfortunately not long enough to hike to all corners of the island, but we gave it a good go! A definite highlight, and easily the most challenging trek I’ve ever done was the eight hour round trip up and down Mount Mauna Coco, the island’s highest mountain, 1000m above sea level. The journey up to summit was beautiful itself, up steep jungle lined gorges, through bamboo forests and grasslands and past the last few houses, inhabited by people with incredible dedication (and even more incredible leg muscles). The view from the top itself was even greater than the sense of achievement of making it up there; from up in the clouds it was possible to see the whole island, the mainland, the islands of Indonesia beyond and most spectacularly the beautiful hues of our house reef.
The final week
In our final week we took another hike over to the other side of the island to the idyllic village of Adara – the ‘Wawata Topu’ fisher ladies from the village make this trek every Saturday morning in order to take their weekly catch to sell at Beloi market. It was humbling as we struggled over the terrain with small backpacks and sturdy trainers to think that they make this journey before sunrise, in flip flops with kilograms of fish every single week. Being so remote, there wasn’t even a whisper of phone signal in Adara, and we had a heavenly technology free afternoon enjoying each other’s company, nature and a spot of yoga with the first sunset we had seen in six weeks before spending the night in ‘Mario’s Place’, sleeping outside on a cabana at the edge of the sea. After waking up with the sunrise, the boat came over from Beloi loaded with our dive gear and we got to explore the stunning Adara wall. This stretch of reef is, as of just a few months ago, Ataúro’s first ‘Tara Bandu’ LMMA. ‘Tara Bandu’ translates as ‘hanging law’, originating from tribal governance and is still the method for gaining governmental recognition of any legal ruling in Timor, in this case, the closure of an area of reef to fishing. Adara were the first village on the island to trial this method, and after seeing its success, villages all over the island are now requesting BV’s help to form 8 more Tara Bandu areas. These LMMAs will be vital in protecting Ataúro against the government’s entirely unsustainable and widely contested plans to transform the island into a hot spot for high intensity tourism. Even with just one dive in the Tara Bandu it was obvious what an impact the closure makes with the stark difference in biomass and the presence of larger species such as bump head parrot fish, extremely rare on Beloi’s reefs.
In addition to Adara, we also spent an afternoon at the Women’s Association of Vila, the administrative centre of Ataúro, who have established a doll making alternative livelihood collective, and a day in the village of Akrema for a lunch hosted by their newly formed homestay association – a privilege to be involved in their first event. We spent our final Sunday in Biqeli, home to Amos and Mima, part of the BV team we worked and dived with every day. We were hosted for our first lunch the church – it was really touching to see how proud the village was of our beloved Mima, soon to be Timor’s first female Divemaster, as she sat confidently joking around with the elder male population of the village, something she never would have done eighteen months previously. She also took us to meet her family, enjoy a second lunch and our bodyweight in fresh coconuts at her sister’s house and a quick walk around the village to point out the prized hot springs. During our time spent in these villages it was obviously that they were starkly less used to the presence of Malae than Beloi, yet the desire for the development of a sustainable kind of tourism was just as evident.
Day to day life – diving, surveying and beach cleaning
As well as helping out with Amos and Mima’s Divemaster training (a real honour), the majority of our day to day diving life was spent undertaking point out, test and data collection dives on the reefs fringing Beloi. In a recent study, Atauro’s reefs were found to have the highest fish species biodiversity in the world (Conservation International, 2016), but other than that very little research has been done about their composition and health, and it is data like this that is required to indicate fish stocks and as a foundation for the establishment of LMMAs, particularly in terms of international recognition. Working under the Reef Check framework supplemented with additional indicator species, the first three weeks were consumed with lectures, point out dives, in-water and computer tests on the different fish, benthic, invertebrates specie and environmental impacts we would need to recognise. Once passed, we worked in pairs to complete surveys, usually two or three transects per dive – often a challenge with the persistent currents and always followed by several hours of data entry every evening. Despite always being on the same selection of sites, every dive was spectacular and each offered something different to the last, and the beautiful coral and reef inhabitants far outshone anything I had ever seen before.
The other major survey element we took part in was data collection for the mapping of Ataúro’s sea grass. Blue Ventures originally took root here as part of an international drive for the protection of Dugongs across the Indian and Pacific Ocean basins as a partner in the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project. Incredibly shy creatures, they have been classed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN due to hunting and the destruction of their major habitat, sea grass. Unfortunately, despite being a major global carbon sump and serving as a vital nursery habitat and breeding ground for many marine species (a lot of which have high commercial value), 29% of the global sea grass habitats have already been lost. They are widely overlooked by policy at the moment, and as a result of human influences including coastal development, runoff and unsustainable fishing practices, sea grass habitats continue to disappear at a rate of 110 sq. km per year, making them one of the most threatened ecosystems on earth. Blue Ventures are currently working on mapping Atauro’s sea grass distribution and species, mostly through Community Based Monitoring. Over the past year they have taught a group of women from the island to swim, and to identify and survey the species – a huge achievement considering the vocabulary limitations of Tetun. As volunteers, we assisted on these CBM sessions, available to help the ladies in anything less than absolute swimming pool like conditions, and also undertook some transects ourselves on afternoons when we weren’t diving. Eventually when the entire perimeter of the island is mapped, the data can be used to work on establishing a plan for the protection of the habitat.
When we weren’t entering data or surveying sea grass, we spent several afternoons in the village’s well renowned English Language school assisting with conversation practice. Students of all ages came to stay at AHA for a number of months from all over the districts of Timor in order to improve their English skills with the hope of securing jobs in the government, in tourism or abroad. The school was next door to our homestay, so we got to know them fairly well and I became very fond of walking past to shouts of ‘Good Afternoon!’ and the familiar sound of their sing-a-long guitar sessions wafting up the road. Our conversations would begin with the generic questions about our family and life in rainy cold England, but would often progress to questions about BV’s work and discussions on environmental impacts on the ocean. It is these conversations which I think have had the biggest impact – after a few months chatting to volunteers they were knowledgable on the impact of fishing, waste and tourism, and to hear their opinions on it was super encouraging, particularly as they would tell of how they would repeat the information to their families and friends in every corner of Timor.
In our final week AHA also joined in on one of our regular beach cleans. Each week we would tackle a different stretch of the Beloi beach, collecting every bit of rubbish we could find before painfully sorting it all into categories, counting it and estimating volumes of microplastics before it went over to the incinerator. Unfortunately due to environmental factors, an immense amount of waste is deposited on Beloi’s beach (the majority of which doesn’t come from Timor itself), and BV are working to record and remove as much of it as possible. This data is then passed on to an organisation in Australia to work out where waste in this region originates and what policies can be put in place to reduce it. Although tiring work and far less glamorous than diving, the beach cleans were easily one of the most rewarding tasks of the expedition. As someone already pretty aware and vocal about the reduction of plastic use it was brilliant to be able to physically be involved in doing something about it, but also soul destroying to be picking up the 426th plastic bottle cap or 268th straw… it has changed how I look at every drink, every toothbrush, and every other element of our overly convenient disposable lifestyle, and I am even more committed to working to reduce our plastic consumption in any way possible. BV’s beach cleans are however having a more immediate impact in Beloi, as members of the village, including our homestay familes, watch the strange group of malae picking things up off the beach and want to know why and if they can help – the magic of the ripple affect once again.
The final scientific element of the expedition and an absolute highlight were the two cetacean surveys we undertook. We would spend a morning taking our little boat around the entire perimeter of the island looking for whales and dolphins, to record species presence in these waters as part of a research project for Charles Darwin University. The waters of Timor-Leste have been described as a cetacean hot spot, as a major migration route for whales and dolphins due to their impressive depth, currents and in turn, abundant nutrients. The presence of these species serve an enormous potential for ecotourism, but in the mean time we were lucky enough to jump in and swim completely alone with pilot and melon-headed whales, and super pods of up to 300 Spinner and Fraser’s dolphins – an opportunity of a life time! These graceful, playful and intelligent creatures were nothing short of humbling, and the few hours I got to spend with them in their natural habitat is something I will never, ever forget.
Because the project is in such early stages, the impact that BV’s work is making in Timor-Leste is extremely dynamic and particularly tangible in the local community; it was so rewarding to see signs of the ripple effect created in just Because the project is in such early stages, the impact that BV’s work is making in Timor-Leste is extremely dynamic and particularly tangible in the local community; it was so rewarding to see signs of the ripple effect created in just six weeks in Beloi and I feel truly privileged to have played a part in the establishment of BV’s newest project. Beyond the exceptional diving on unexplored reefs, the joy of spending time with our homestay families and with the local staff was far beyond anything I expected – from watching David Attenborough documentaries with Antonio the boat captain in the evenings to playing even the smallest role in helping Amos and Mima become the first Timorese Divemasters. The village, its community, the island, its beautiful marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and culture touched my heart immensely, and I feel so privileged to have been able to witness a piece of this young country’s soul as it embarks on such a journey of growth. I cannot wait to revisit in the coming years to track this change further, and my time with BV not only hammered home the importance of sustainable development, but also gave me immense hope for the possibility of preserving such delicate places around the world for generations to come. Six weeks in Beloi and I feel truly privileged to have played a part in the establishment of BV’s newest project. Beyond the exceptional diving on unexplored reefs, the joy of spending time with our homestay families and with the local staff was far beyond anything I expected – from watching David Attenborough documentaries with Antonio the boat captain in the evenings to playing even the smallest role in helping Amos and Mima become the first Timorese Divemasters. The village, its community, the island, its beautiful marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and culture touched my heart immensely, and I feel so privileged to have been able to witness a piece of this young country’s soul as it embarks on such a journey of growth. I cannot wait to revisit in the coming years to track this change further, and my time with BV not only hammered home the importance of sustainable development, but also gave me immense hope for the possibility of preserving such delicate places around the world for generations to come.