A MICROCOSM OF EQUITY AND SUSTAINABILITY IN EAST TIMOR

 

Exploring Links Between Biodiversity, Communities and Tourism on Adara Island

 
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The dorsal fins of pilot whales break the surface of deep blue waters. They alert us to their presence by exhaling plumes of spray that become rainbows in the early morning light. A breath later, and they arc beneath the waves. We count at least fifteen individuals before they head away from us and into deeper waters.  

This is our first sight of East Timor’s extraordinary marine biodiversity. The young country, situated between Indonesia and Australia, is home to a vast array of marine life forms. We’re excited to witness the biodiversity, but our interest extends beyond 'endless forms most beautiful'. We’re keen to explore how communities’ sustainable uses of biodiversity support their livelihoods, and whether other actors can support or enhance (and not diminish) that relationship.

Soon after seeing the pilot whales, we set anchor just offshore from Adara village. We get our first glimpse of the houses across pristine waters, over a white sandy beach and through tall coconut trees. We’re greeted by Mathias de Arauja from the village, who explains the set up. 

A scuba dive company approached the villagers around five years ago to discuss how tourism could support their livelihoods and sustainable uses of biodiversity. After lengthy discussions and an evolving approach, the village has now established a fishing exclusion zone around a 400 meter-long reef for use as a dive site. In return, the company employs a number of village members and for each diver who visits the site the village receives one dollar into a communal fund. Funds from this revenue stream have been used, for example, to renovate the village school.

We bob on the surface wearing our scuba gear. Our dive master gives the signal and we slowly descend the side of Adara reef to our maximum depth of 20 meters. Over the next hour our visual senses are bombarded, stretching our understanding of ‘life’ to include radical new dimensions. The preponderance of neutrals in the terrestrial realm is made a mockery by the electric colours that twinkle, shimmer and refract along the reef. As we tune into the new visual frequency, we drift with the strong current past blue-yellow fusiliers that appear and disappear as they turn en masse, and are greeted, inspected and then left to our devices by regal-looking angelfish, dapper clown triggerfish, an imposing school of barracuda and a skeptical-looking Napoleon wrasse. The reef is so bursting with diversity that it is impossible to take it all in. Every second is another marvel, more quixotic and hypnotic that the last. 

It is this level of diversity of corals, reef fish, crustaceans and pelagic fish, turtles and cetaceans that has led a recent study to suggest that the biodiversity in Atauro’s waters is among the very highest in the world. A key question is whether this abundance can be conserved in ways that also support local livelihoods. After the dive, we chat to Martus Makivu and his grandson, both from the village. Martus mentions that tourist numbers are down, making the reef conservation scheme less popular with his fellow villagers due to lower levels of income and fewer jobs. 

Hearing the views of different groups lead to a range of questions. How sustainable were the historical fishing practices on the Adara reef and what effect has the fishery closure had on biodiversity? Has this led villagers to fish less and rely on (likely less nutritious) food purchased from the mainland, or are they simply fishing elsewhere? If the latter, what is the net effect on biodiversity? What is a fair and equitable deal between local communities and commercial operations? And what is the role of conservation and other not-for-profit organisations in these kinds of arrangements?

These questions are not limited to Adara and their partners. Coastal communities worldwide are faced with similar questions, oftentimes in less resource-rich or more conflict-intensive situations. The answers, however, are no less pressing or challenging to determine. 

As we head back across the straight to the capital city, we see the schooling pilot whales again and celebrate our blue planet’s extraordinary diversity. As we enter Dili’s harbour, however, we pull alongside a fleet of industrial fishing boats that sits idly waiting for the political green light to resume operations after having their licences revoked. The gun metal grey, austere-looking ships seem a world away from the teeming diversity of East Timor’s waters. The linkages, of course, are all too real. 

Further Reading: 

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/asia/east-timor-reefs-tourism.html  

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/17/atauro-island-timor-leste-the-push-to-protect-the-most-biodiverse-waters-in-the-world

 
cat1Harry Jonas