3 Reasons Timorese Women Aren’t More Involved in Conservation Efforts

© Paul Hilton for Conservation International

Editor's note: This blog is the third post in our new “Gender + Conservation” blog series.

Sitting at a seaside guesthouse in Com, a small community in Timor-Leste, I watched the moon rise over the ocean. Tiny lights began to flicker along the shoreline as women waded in the shallow waters of the reef flat, collecting crabs, octopus and sea urchins and using baskets woven from palm leaves to catch small fish.

Women in Timor-Leste interact with nature on a daily basis, but as the owner of the guesthouse, Robela Mendes, explained to me, women have a different relationship with natural resources than men. “It is important to get women involved in conservation, because they use natural resources too.”

It was the end of my research project, and I was about to return to Dili armed with stories and inspiration from the women of Nino Konis Santana National Park (NKSNP).

A Remarkable Place

This park is a place of stunning beauty. Located on the easternmost tip of the tiny island nation, NKSNP covers 1,236 square kilometers (477 square miles). As you bounce along the decrepit four-wheel drive track to Walu Beach, lush forest gives way to pristine white sand and sparkling turquoise waters. A short boat ride across the water lies the popular tourist destination Jaco Island, which remains uninhabited and is considered sacred by locals.

NKSNP is Timor-Leste’s first national park, established in 2007 in honour of the independence movement national hero Nino Konis Santana. After years of being controlled by Portugal and then Indonesia, Timor-Leste only achieved independence in 2002, making it one of the world’s youngest countries.

The national park includes part of the Coral Triangle, a vibrant Pacific region that provides food security and livelihoods for more than 130 million people. Timor-Leste itself boasts some of the world’s richest biodiversity and is home to 400 species of reef-building corals, a bounty comparable to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

CI field staff has worked together with three communities within the national park — Tutuala, Com and Lore-I — to establish Timor-Leste’s first network of marine protected areas. Local volunteers have marked the boundaries of the park’s community-managed no-take zones with buoys; they now carry out regular biological monitoring and assist with the ongoing maintenance of the zones.

Visiting these communities, I noticed that while the women work tirelessly to provide sustenance for the conservation group volunteers, the groups themselves are all male.

The Project

In April this year I was given the opportunity to explore the gender dynamics of natural resource use in the NKSNP. The goal was to provide CI’s Timor-Leste staff with a baseline understanding of gender dynamics within the communities  and ensure that gender differences would be taken into account on future projects.

Funded by CI’s Social Policy and Practice department, I led a small team in participatory research that was designed using CI’s gender integration guidelines (learn more in this blog post). The research was carried out with women’s groups and conservation groups in all three communities. It consisted of focus groups and one-on-one interviews, where we asked both men and women about their roles in natural resource management and their access to goods and services.

What We Found

Men and women of NKSNP have the same access to natural resources such as firewood, fish and fresh water. However, men exercise greater control over them due to the patrilineal nature of the communities.

Men and women’s use of land is very similar, with only a few tasks being labelled as roles for men alone (e.g., harvesting palm leaves to make traditional palm wine).

Ocean fishing is almost exclusively performed by men. Women, however, seasonally “glean” along the shores. This term describes the fishing activities carried out by women and children in coral ecosystems and tidal flats without the use of specialized technologies. Women also play a large role in post-catch fishing activities such as cleaning, preparing and packing the catch to be sold, as well as decision-making surrounding pricing and marketing.

Perhaps our most interesting findings were the barriers that prevent women from participating in community decision-making forums. These barriers were many and varied, yet three remained consistent across the communities we visited:

1. Language limitations.

Although Portuguese and Tetun are the national languages of Timor-Leste, only around 18% of the population (male and female) speak Tetun as a first language and less than 1% speak Portuguese as a first language.

In Com, Tutuala and Lore-I the native language is Fataluku, a local indigenous language. Women’s Tetun skills lag behind those of men, inhibiting their ability to contribute to community forums. As one of our participants explained,“We [women] only have language for cooking and eating, not for fighting [at community meetings].”

2. Unequal division of labor.

In all three communities, women complete the majority of domestic and child rearing tasks as well as participating in livelihood-related activities. Many women do not have time to attend a community meeting and still complete all the daily household tasks.

One female participant commented “If a man wants to go to a meeting, he just goes — but if a woman wants to go, she has to have finished all her work, or else there will be trouble.”

3. Lack of information.

Whilst women have the same access to information sources as men, they lack time in their schedule to engage with information sources like television, radio or community meetings. Because they are less informed, women are often perceived as too shy to speak up in community forums.

To date, women’s participation in CI conservation projects in Timor-Leste has been limited by the physical requirements of being a conservation group member. Members must be able to swim to perform biological monitoring activities, and the majority of local women do not know how.

I discussed these barriers at length with Robela Mendes, the guesthouse owner and leader of the Com women’s group. She said that women in Com have a strong desire to be involved in conservation projects, but that “CI needs to let them know they have the capacity and skills to participate.”

Robela’s guesthouse employs five local women who receive informal training in hospitality management as part of their employment. She also leads a women’s group whose members weave and sell tais (traditional Timorese weaving).

When asked about how CI should go about engaging more women in conservation, Robela suggested we appoint an individual in each community to act as liaison and advisor on community gender dynamics throughout our projects.

Sharing the Results

After completing our research, I revisited the three communities to share results and discuss how we can work together to ensure women are given the full opportunity to participate in all aspects of CI’s conservation activities.

This time we brought the men and women together in one big group. They were interested to discover that men and women had made similar observations about the gender dynamics in their communities.

Participants also discussed the barriers to women’s participation in conservation groups and suggested strategies for overcoming these barriers. Suggestions included coordinating child care options during meetings and providing language training in Tetun and English to boost women’s confidence.

During this trip, I spent more time with Robela discussing her plans for the local community. She had just returned from Indonesia, where she had attended the first meeting of the Coral Triangle Women Leaders’ Forum. Robela was one of six leaders from Coral Triangle nations who were recognised at the forum for her contribution to conservation in her local community. She was truly inspired by the women she met there, and shared with me her plans to establish a women’s committee to work on a community clean-up project in Com.

As I prepared to leave Com, Robela placed a narrow tais around my neck and kissed me on both cheeks. This marked the end of my journey in Timor-Leste, but it is only the beginning of a new journey for women and conservation in Nino Konis Santana National Park.

Kate Proud is an Australian volunteer who has spent a year working with CI in Timor-Leste as part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, funded by the Australian government.

CI’s efforts in Timor-Leste began under the USAID-funded Coral Triangle Support Partnership, a five-year collaboration between CI, The Nature Conservancy and WWF that aimed to support conservation in the six Coral Triangle countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste).