The National (UAE)
Jesse Wright, Correspondent
* Last Updated: July 31. 2008 10:16PM UAE / July 31. 2008 6:16PM GMT
DILI, East Timor // In past years, the deep-green forests of East Timor hid near-extinct bird life, chattering monkeys, small rural villages and freedom fighters. Now, the jungle is buzzing with environmentalists who are working hard to protect the tiny nation’s first national park.
The Nino Konis Santana National Park, which opens today, spreads out over 123,000 hectares and ranges from flat grasslands to a spine of jagged mountains along the park’s southern coast. The park is a sweaty, eight-hour drive over arid lands from Dili, the nation’s capital.
Until the Indonesians were pushed out of East Timor in a referendum in 1999, the land was protected by its remoteness and the guerrilla fighters who took sanctuary there. But, as the country opens itself up to the world’s investors, the government is trying to ensure East Timor’s natural resources are not sold to the highest bidder.
“The problem of companies coming in and exploiting the land is a big problem for a small, poor country,” said Manuel Mendes, the park’s national director. “The job of managing the land is very difficult because it’s a lot of land we’ve set aside, so it’s hard to look after it.”
Given the opportunity, there is plenty to exploit. The park is home to sea turtles, monkeys and dozens of species of rare birds, some found nowhere else on earth and some of which are near extinction. The land is also the home of virgin lowland rainforest, these days a rarity in Southeast Asia.
This year there was concern within the government that GTLeste, an Indonesian biofuel company, wanted vast sections of the park to plant sugarcane, but Mr Mendes said the plan was scrapped.
“I’ve already talked with the secretary of state about this, and we can never grant commercial access to this land,” he said.
A spokesman for GTLeste said the company had no interest in the land, but was interested in property next door.
East Timor faces several challenges in protecting the park, including a shoestring budget that pays the salaries of only a handful of people and does not cover such essentials as transportation or local offices.
This year the country was hit hard by a financial crisis, as rice – a staple food in East Timor – doubled in price, petrol prices climbed higher and the US dollar (the official currency) weakened.
The national park is home to about 10,000 people, most of whom live in small, rural communities. The people in the park live far from the coffee region in the middle of the country, and they do not grow much rice or any other cash crops. There are no factories or large urban centres. There are no jobs.
However, Mr Mendes said the people who live there were not a threat to the park. Most of the families still hunt as their ancestors did – with blowguns, spears and bows and arrows. They depend on wild pigs and deer for their meat and on the ubiquitous lontar palm for its starchy, edible insides in lean times and the leaves for their huts.
“The people who live there now have had a good relationship with the environment since the time of their ancestors,” Mr Mendes said. “They’ve been managing the land since then, and I don’t want to blame them.”
Yet there are still threats to the park’s survival, including illegal logging and lacklustre laws.
“We have an example of illegal logging from 2007,” he said. “It wasn’t the local people who were cutting the wood, it was the people with money, the people who could afford chainsaws, they’d go out there and log.”
Even when loggers are caught, nothing happens. Police arrested 15 people last year and charged them with illegal logging based on laws passed during the UN rule of East Timor from 1999 to 2002. But the courts refused to acknowledge the laws and threw the case out.
“We’re going to work hard to make sure we can get some laws by next year which will define jail times and fines for crimes,” Mr Mendes said. “We’re looking to enlarge the environmental laws and regulations relating to fishing and farming in order to lessen the risks of environmental degradation.”
More than US$1 million (Dh3.67m) has already been invested in the park since the plan was first proposed five years ago. In addition to government funds, international conservation groups, such as BirdLife and Darwin Initiative, have supported the park.
Mr Mendes said rich countries should have an interest in protecting East Timor’s wilderness because, even as Indonesia races to replant lost forests to reduce the effects of global warming, the country’s wilderness can remain intact. But international help is still needed.
“In order to guarantee that the land is protected, it’s not just up to East Timor, but to other nations to help convince our leaders that our land is worth protecting,” he said.
Today, East Timor is home to dozens of non-government aid organisations.
The UN has had missions in the country since 1999, and the government is abuzz with foreign advisers from around the world. Mr Mendes said he hoped the government could depend on the international community to make a concerted effort to help his country’s nascent efforts at conservation.
Cathy Molnar, an Australian, who advises the government on protected areas, said East Timor could be a proving ground for a new approach at environmentalism.
“We westerners think of conservation as applying to beautiful things and about biodiversity,” she said. “Often people ask, isn’t [the development of the park] too early for a place like East Timor? But conservation is also about soil and water management. You can’t separate livelihoods from protection. If you cut down all your trees for agriculture then you’re going to have erosion and lose your water source, too.”
Ms Molnar said the agriculture ministry had been appealing to aid organisations that teach sustainable agriculture to give training to the people who live within the park. By developing new management techniques that balance local needs with international goals, she said the country might be able to save what it has.
“People in the western world have to have a mindshift. [Conservation] is not about locking the land up, it’s about managing it sustainably and collaboratively,” Ms Molnar said.
“One part of land management is rehabilitating the land and the other part is protecting what you’ve got. This park is the protection part of land management, and that’s arguably the most important part because it stops the damage from happening in the first place.”