The forest’s inner struggle
In postconflict Timor-Leste, rainforest dwellers must choose between restoring and protecting a scarred environment and staying alive
In Timor-Leste: Nino Konis Santana, the country’s first national park. Photograph: Rosie Nic Cionnaith
In Timor-Leste: a refugee camp at Aitarak Laran, in Dili. After decades of disruption, this community of displaced people have still to find permanent homes. Photograph: Rosie Nic Cionnaith
In Timor-Leste: the construction of Hera power station, just outside Dili, part of a controversial plan to bring electrification to the country using outdated heavy-oil technology. Photograph: Rosie Nic Cionnaith
In Timor-Leste: village women in the Nino Konis Santana National Park region, where traditional communities fear legislation that may threaten their livelihoods. Photograph: Rosie Nic Cionnaith
‘I was nine years old when the Indonesians invaded Timor-Leste in 1975, and I fled to the mountains with my mum, my grandmother, my brother and sister. Four and a half years in the jungle taught me an important lesson. The important resource for life is not technology; it’s environment, it’s nature,” says Demetrio de Carvalho.
It’s not until I meet him that I even begin to grasp the realities of life under the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, as it was called until independence, just over a decade ago. Cold, stark facts and figures give little indication of the daily terrors faced by a young boy hiding in the mountains. That boy has grown up to be Timor-Leste’s leading conservationist, a winner of the 2004 International Goldman Environmental Prize and founder of the Haburas Foundation, a Timorese environmental nongovernmental organisation. Ironically, those years of extreme hardship were his inspiration.
Now Timor-Leste, which occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor, between Darwin, in northern Australia, and Borneo, is a nation once again, striving to establish itself after centuries of colonisation and decades of violent occupation – before it was invaded by Indonesia, the country had been under Portuguese rule for more than 400 years. It was finally established as an independent state in May 2002, making it one of the world’s newest nations.
De Carvalho and I are perched outdoors at the Haburas cafe, on a side street not far from the main promenade of the capital, Dili, drinking Timorese coffee and swatting mosquitoes.
I have heard scattered stories of life in the jungle, but none was detailed enough to depict the daily challenges of displaced people hiding from invading forces for years. Just providing for your family would be adversity enough. Being under siege, being hunted, adds another dimension.
“We had to move around at all times,” says de Carvalho. “At that time there was one Indonesian [soldier] to every four Timorese, an extremely high ratio. Around my place [there were] always three to five warships every day shooting at the mountain. The infantry also attacked from different directions, and its warplanes . . . used napalm. So that’s one of my life’s testimonies about environmental degradation from that war. They destroyed our forest land by about 1.2 per cent every year.”
I have come to Timor-Leste, inspired by the story of Nino Konis Santana National Park, declared in 2007, just a few years into independence. With a land area of 1,236sq km, along with 556sq km at sea, Timor’s first national park is a serious resource. But, in the wake of such long-term national trauma, how did the creation of a national park for conservation make it on to the political agenda?
Everyone I speak to agrees that the concept of having a national park is a good one, but the general consensus is that it is a much-flawed model. The main criticism is that current regulations don’t give due consideration to the 12,000 inhabitants of the six villages within the park. De Carvalho points out that these villagers are the natural custodians. “I [have criticised many times] that ‘national park’ is only a name. It’s very important to recognise that the concept of conservation is part of Timorese life. The people will fight if we try to impose things.”
The people are part of the forest ecosystem too. “We think about the forest and the bird life, but we can’t forget about the people. Why? If we give advantages to one – to the forest, to the animals, to the people – there’s an impact on the other two,” says my guide, Maleve Guerra.