The forest’s inner struggle

In postconflict Timor-Leste, rainforest dwellers must choose between restoring and protecting a scarred environment and staying alive

'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.

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