East Timor’s coastal waters swarm with saltwater crocodiles, dolphins, whales, dugongs, sea turtles and are home to vast beds of sea grasses and coral reefs. And now, in East Timor, an ancient customary law known to the Maubere tribal peoples as tara bandu has been excavated from the ashes of Indonesian occupation and is being revived in an effort to preserve the nation’s remarkable marine life.
In fact, East Timor (also called Timor-Leste) is located in the middle of the “Coral Triangle” of Asia, making it one of the most remarkable areas on earth for marine life, containing hundreds of species of reefs and thousands of reef fish. But will the central government in the capital city of Dili ensure that the nation’s considerable natural heritage be preserved for future generations and for ecotourism?
Goats and pigs are sacrificed for the local spirits, their blood spilled on the earth in an effort to glean auspicious signs from invisible onlookers in the village of Biacou, where tara bandu has been back in effect for the past six years, establishing no-take fishing zones, as well as bans on cyanide poisoning and dynamite fishing. Indonesia, which occupied East Timor from 1975 to 1999, banned these sacred pagan traditions, but it seems the spirits have been patient, and the sacrifice of domestic animals in favor of their wild brethren has been met with enthusiastic approval in recent years.
So exceedingly pristine are Timor’s coastal waters and beaches that Australian crocodiles are swimming 600 miles to hunt and mate there. Both the Indonesians and the Portuguese rulers before them mandated cruel “croc culls”, slaughtering the great beasts whenever and wherever possible. But those days are long gone, and to tribal people such as the Fataluku and Tetum, man-eating saltwater crocodiles are now seen—once again—as sacred totems, and a potential ecotourism draw (tourists pay for the “croc experience” in Darwin, Australia, so why couldn’t East Timor do the same?).
Croc threats aside, this place sounds like paradise. Nino Konis Santana National Park wraps around the country’s entire northeastern edge like a gleaming blue mitten on the azure seas, ostensibly protecting fish, sea birds, and reptiles alike. It is a place where dolphins leap, whales breach, and turtles paddle, where petrels and frigate birds majestically glide and soar above the blue waves; its white sand beaches put Thailand’s to shame.
But is there trouble on the horizon in this eye-pleasing destination? Just last year, 15 Chinese fishing boats were seized in Timorese waters with thousands of shark fins in their holds, and those are just the ships that were apprehended. The government has published its “2011-2030 Development Plan,” which includes plans for sustainable fisheries, but this will need to be carefully managed when artisanal fishing becomes commercial fishing. Foreign poaching vessels from numerous countries will also have to be kept out.
Chinese influence is on the rise in East Timor, though former President Jose Ramos-Horta brushes this idea off as an old cliché. However, despite the ex-president’s objections (he currently resides in Hong Kong), it would be difficult to imagine how East Timor would not appeal to China in terms of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and overall Asia Pacific strategy. In fact, it was China who built East Timor’s presidential palace as well as their foreign ministry building.
Analysts often describe certain countries or areas as “strategic,” but it is clear that China views any and every place on earth as strategic. No shoal, island, or stretch of coastline is too remote or insignificant not to factor into Beijing’s plans. Actually, China could very well see East Timor as something akin to a mini-Cambodia, where Chinese influence is overwhelming, with a vast and strategically valuable coastline, not too far from their new Australian base in Darwin, and a convenient pit stop en route home from their future Antarctic operations.
But the future is far from certain. Will East Timor, free from its Indonesian shackles, become a new frontier to exploit, or will the nation’s leaders in the capital city of Dili have the foresight to set in place protective measures to ensure that this stunningly beautiful country retains its impressive natural history for generations to come? Or, will this country and its strategic coastline find itself dominated by a foreign power once again? Time will tell.
Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.