terça-feira, 30 de abril de 2013

Nino Konis Santana National Park Update

Exploring issues in Timor-Leste

By: Rosie Nic Cionnaith 
Published in the Donegal News, April 2013.

Nino Konis Santana National Park.

I am sitting on a beach, some 8000 miles from my home on the Fanad Peninsula, watching a group of men smoke a few large fish over a hastily-constructed fire. Children are cutting up plastic bottles to use as plates, an Australian aid worker strums her guitar in the shade, and my translator Maleve is emptying a huge pot of boiled rice onto a carpet of leaves. It is an impromptu community feast, and one of my most memorable days in this beautiful country – Timor-Leste, or East Timor as it was formerly known.

This beach at Tutuala is stunning, a picture-postcard scene of palm trees, golden sand and turquoise sea, but it is off the radar for most travellers. This is a country in the early days of nation-building, following centuries of colonisation and decades of violent occupation. After 400 odd years of Portuguese rule came to an end in 1975, East Timor was promptly invaded by nearest neighbour Indonesia. The 24-year Indonesian occupation of Timor was brutal, with over 100,000 Timorese fatalities. In 1999, following a referendum in which Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, the country went into UN administration. It was finally established as an independent state in May 2002, making it one of the world’s newest nations.

Up until today, my company has been predominantly of the expat nature – Timor’s capital Dili has an astounding array of international NGOs. I have listened to the Timorese experiences of a vast number of foreign nationals. But today, Australian Deb Salvagno and I are in the minority. I have been staying with Deb at her home in Lospalos, gateway town to Timor’s first national park. There she works with local women’s cooperative CKTDS (Cooperative for Tais, Culture and Sustainable Development), and is pretty much ‘the only expat in the village’.

As soon as word spread that Deb and I were heading to Tutuala, the jeep quickly filled up with locals hoping for a day out at the coast. So here we are, hanging out in the national park, Timorese style. Ze, a young boy born in the year of independence, has commandeered my swimming goggles. A trio of teenage girls, one sporting a Union Jack t-shirt, insist on my taking their photo in a never-ending display of sultry poses. Everyone is singing along to ‘No Woman, No Cry’. And dinner is served, on a tarpaulin covered in leaves.

Driving through the Tutuala region, the beauty of the Nino Konis Santana National Park is striking. Declared a national park in 2007, this land area of 1236 square kilometres along with 556 square kilometres at sea was named after a Tutuala-born freedom fighter, leader of the FALINTIL resistance forces until his death in 1998. I have come here, inspired by the story of a people so concerned with their environment, that in the wake of such long-term national trauma they might consider designating an area for environmental protection. Considering that much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed during the conflict, there must surely have been a significant ‘to do’ list for the first decade of nation-building. So how did ‘create a national park’ make it onto that list?

Like many developing countries where the majority of the population depend on subsistence farming, there is a discernable level of environmental awareness here. Meabh Cryan, an Irish woman working for the Haburas Foundation, Timor’s most active environmental NGO, says “I think the environment is very important to the Timorese, even if people don’t articulate it in the same way as we do in Ireland. There is a respect, because there’s so much more of an immediate link, you live off the land on a day to day basis, you see the impact of your actions.”

For many, seeing their land and forests substantially degraded during the Indonesian occupation has heightened their desire to make environmental protection  a priority. Demetrio de Carvalho, an ex-resistance leader, is the founder of the Haburas Foundation. Like so many others, he spent several years in hiding in the forest, on the run from the threat of Indonesian attack.

“I was nine years old when the Indonesians invaded Timor-Leste. I fled to the mountains with family and relatives. Four and a half years in the jungle is an important lesson learned for me… the important resource for our life, it’s not technology, it’s environment, it’s our nature… we all depending on our nature. Our forest conditions back to 1973, it was about 60-65% cover – compared to 1999, our forest already declined down to 35%. So it means they destroy our forest land about 1.2% every year.”

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 presently a much-flawed model. The main criticisms are that the current regulations don’t give due consideration to the 12,000 inhabitants of the six villages situated within the park boundaries. “We think about forest, 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”, my translator and guide Maleve Guerra expains.

Demetrio points out the villagers within the park are the natural custodians. “I myself criticise many times that national park is only a name. The conservation mechanism is already there. It’s very important to recognise the concept of conservation is part of Timorese life. The people will fight if we try to impose things.” But, with a post-conflict population explosion, how long can these traditional societies maintain an equilibrium with their natural resources? According to Charles Scheiner of local NGO La’o Hamutuk, which monitors and analyses the activities of international and government agencies in Timor-Leste, “The problem is that it was cultural and sustainable when Timor-Leste had 200,000 people. In ten years there will be two million people here, and it’s growing very rapidly.”

For forest communities who have lived off the land for generations, an inherited UN regulation for protected areas curtails both hunting and felling trees within the park (which villagers do for firewood, building houses and planting crops). Maleve argues that there has not been enough consultation with the communities, and that people don’t really understand what the law means. In fact, I arrange an interview with two forest policemen, whose job it is to enforce the law within the national park. Even they don’t seem terribly well-informed.

Juvinal Dias, a young man from Tutuala village, now working for La’o Hamutuk in the capital Dili, says that although villagers try to adhere to what they understand of the law, they often have no choice. “People still need the nature in the park for their life. If they cannot plant the corn in the forest, they will die because nothing to eat. If I have just one choice, cut the wood and plant the corn for my children, even if I know it’s not sustainable, it’s not good for future. But I want to live today! This is a challenge that people face in the area. They understand about protection, but about how to live also. Personally, I support the government decision for national park, but the government also need to diversify the economy for people. If they tell people don’t cut wood in there, government should be able to provide an alternative life for them.”

At the end of our day in Tutuala, I sit on Deb’s porch in Lospalos with Antonio da Fonseca, Chief of Tutuala village, chatting until the wee hours. He is passionate about his community, his environment. He is insistent that the only way forward is for the government to involve the forest communities in future legislation. “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 and we have to be forgiving of the government, and we must provide advice. The government can’t forbid people from doing everything. We’re frightened because of this. If the government decides to make really strong regulations, the community will resist.”

Fonseca can see the benefits of having a national park, primarily with regards to tourism. An intuitive leader, he has seen the damage that can be caused by mass tourism from his visits to Bali, but welcomes the idea of selective eco-tourism, catering for visitors who come for the right reasons. He knows that while his community fears change, they can’t avoid it. He just hopes they have a say in it.

Before we say ‘bon noite’, Fonseca thanks me for coming to speak with him. He has a great belief 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 pens!” he says, throwing his head back and laughing his heart out. 

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. 


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