In 2007, despite mounting civil unrest, Timor-Leste established its first National Park connecting a number of endangered bird areas and encompassing a large section of the Coral Triangle, an underwater zone believed to hold the greatest diversity of marine life on Earth. Emelyn Rude is a Young Explorer studying the balance between environmental conservation and economic development in a nation of newly restored independence.
After a nauseating hour and a half in the back of a mini-bus driven by a trio of solemn teenage boys, we arrived at Sina Seaside Guest House in Com. As we settled in, a group of Australian volunteers (there seem to be a lot of them in Timor) were passing through for lunch.
Seating ourselves at the table next to theirs, conversation started flowing and eventually landed on my project to explore the issues surrounding Nino Konis Santana National Park. Eager volunteers as they were, they excitedly informed me of the various initiatives underway and what roles these projects, and they themselves, were playing in helping to preserve this beautiful area as well as help Timor progress as a whole.
After the Aussies had eaten their fill and sped off in their four-wheel drive, the wife of the owner began clearing dishes in the eating area. With the park on my mind, I took the opportunity to ask her about what she thought about Nino Konis and all the changes that were occurring as a result.
While difficult to fully comprehend her meanings in the half-mimed language of Tetun, the local language, Portuguese, and English that we used together, the way she spoke about Nino Konis was decidedly different. For Sina, the park most immediately meant more Australian volunteers, which meant more people stopping by for lunch, which meant more income for her family to live here like they had for decades, fishing, gathering firewood, and weaving traditional tais, the local woven handicraft. There was less eagerness for dramatic change like the volunteers and more of a contentment that things would get better while staying relatively the same.
And that’s the interesting part about Nino Konis: the contrast in expectations and ideas on what a National Park should be, most clearly divided between foreigner and Timorese, but not only fractured in this way. Reflecting back, I too had my own pre-conceived notions about what Nino Konis was. For example, I was surprised when I couldn’t really tell when our exploration of the National Park actually began. From the maps we found online, I know it all started somewhere on our journey between the Portuguese colonial fortress at Lautem and the sleepy beachside town of Com, but beyond that it’s unclear.
There weren’t any of the things I was used to seeing that indicates the transition between the public and the protected: no signs, no tourist posts, no uniformed officers of the park service. And to be frank, everything in the park looked pretty much the same as everything outside of the park, from the terrible state of the road to the gorgeous blue of the ocean to the assortment of tin-roofed houses that dotted the shoreline.
In addition to not being well-marked, Nino Konis Santana National Park is also apparently not well-named. That is, technically it’s not even a national park. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a national park is a natural area of great beauty protected by the highest authority in the land from human occupation and exploitation.
According to recent surveys of Timor-Leste, over 15,000 human beings like Sina are currently occupying and exploiting the natural resources of the Nino Konis protected area, just like their ancestors have done for generations. Furthermore, international stipulations on defining a national park include things like the prohibition of fishing and having an large enough budget to adequately protect the area- things that the government of Timor-Leste just does not have the resources and political interest in enforcing.
The protected area of Nino Konis was established in 2007, but evidence of human occupation on this part of the island goes back more than 30,000 years. The land is part of the people who live here and the people who live here are part of the land.
The protected area of Nino Konis was established in 2007, but evidence of human occupation on this part of the island goes back more than 30,000 years. The land is part of the people who live here and the people who live here are part of the land. And yet the National Park, or at the very least the idea of a National Park, is bringing much needed income and resources to this long overlooked part of the world. Should our conservation models be predicated on the absence of humans or can they incorporate the idea that societies can be stewards of their natural surroundings?
Through primarily the result of circumstance, and I also hope a little bit of willfulness, the Timorese government has chosen the latter model of conservation. As the park progresses in the coming years, for the sake of the park and the Timorese people, I hope the strengths of stewardship far outweigh the weaknesses.
*I researched further and found that technically Nino Konis Santana National Park is a IUCN Category V Landscape/Seascape, a definition which takes into account the cultural as well as environmental importance of a region similar to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I would argue that National Park has a better ring to it though.