The forest’s inner struggle
In postconflict Timor-Leste, rainforest dwellers must choose between restoring and protecting a scarred environment and staying alive
Juvinal Dias, a young man from Tutuala village who now works for a local nongovernmental organisation, La’o Hamutuk, in Dili, says that although villagers try to adhere to what they understand of the law, they often have no choice. “If they cannot plant the corn in the forest, they will die because they have nothing to eat. If I have just one choice, [it is] to cut the wood and plant the corn for my children, even if I know it’s not sustainable and it’s not good for the future. But I want to live today.
“Personally, I support the government decision [to create] a national park, but the government also needs to diversify the economy for people. If it tells people not to cut wood in there, it should be able to provide an alternative life for them.”
Tutuala is on the eastern tip of Timor, nestled against a breathtaking backdrop of pristine forest that drops down to turquoise seas and golden beaches. The uninhabited island of Jaco, just offshore, is regarded as the jewel in the crown and is sacred to the Timorese. It would be hard to find a more impressive view, or one more worthy of protection.
Antonio Fonseca, the chief of Tutuala, is eager to talk to a foreign journalist. He maintains his gentle composure for more than two hours while dinner goes cold in the kitchen. When I ask how the Indonesian occupation damaged the environment, his reply is startling. “They didn’t just destroy our environment. They destroyed our culture, our character. It has taught people to be violent. To change that mentality is a really difficult and lengthy process.”
Fonseca blames the government for not consulting community leaders, saying they should have conducted research and created zones for cultivating crops. “Who looks after the national park? Not the government or state, but the people who have the land. The national park was a strategy to win the 2007 election. It is not a priority to the government right now. But we have to consider that this is a new nation; we have to be forgiving of the government and we must provide advice.
“The government can’t forbid people doing everything. We’re frightened because of this. If the government decides to make really strong regulations, the community will resist.”
Fonseca knows that the necessary regulation will come. Timor-Leste’s population is set to rise dramatically in the next decade, and this, Fonseca says, is a huge threat to the traditional way of life. “The most important thing the government can do is to resolve the question of what people are going to eat. We don’t want to be given food. We want our capacity to be improved.”
As the chief of a small village in a small island nation, this quietly spoken man can see the benefits of having a national park, primarily for tourism. From his visits to neighbouring Bali he has seen the damage that can be caused by mass tourism, but he welcomes the idea of selective ecotourism, catering for visitors who come “for the right reasons. We can’t just say we’re anticapitalist because we’re defending our traditional way of living.”
Fonseca is a firm believer in the power of journalism. “We need pens to determine the future, not guns. These days the Timorese government is not frightened of guns, but of pens,” he says, throwing his head back and laughing.
This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund