In diver’s paradise, communities unite to protect their most valuable resource: reefs

© Paul Hilton for Conservation International

You’d be forgiven if you couldn’t find Timor-Leste on a map.

The island country — which only gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002, making it the youngest nation in the Pacific — is not much larger than the city of Sydney, Australia.

Yet its waters offer a spectacular display of coral reefs and marine life, including sea turtles, reef fish and the enormous and elusive dugong. For hardcore divers, Timor-Leste is as close as one can get to paradise.

Now, thanks to a new effort to combine 12 community-run marine protected areas (MPAs) — areas of the ocean where human activity is restricted, preventing overfishing and keeping the waters healthy — into one large network on the Timorese island of Atauro, this stretch of ocean could thrive for generations to come. 

Conservation News spoke with Trudiann Dale, the head of Conservation International Timor-Leste, to explore how local communities in Atauro are building their livelihoods through conservation, while protecting the natural resources they rely on.

Q: You were instrumental in the creation of this MPA network. Where did the idea come from?

Answer: There is a traditional law in Timor-Leste called taru bandu, which designates natural areas as “no-take” zones that allow nature to thrive. A few years ago, the communities of Atauro marked out several taru bandu areas and, with Conservation International’s guidance, weaved in modern sustainable management methods, leading to the establishment of 12 separate marine protected areas.  

Now, the communities of Atauro are taking this one step further and unifying each of these marine protected areas under a single network to strengthen conservation efforts — and get paid for it. As part of this unification, we’ve helped the network negotiate an annual fee from dive businesses who will now pay for access to the network’s protected dive sites. Revenue will support the management and monitoring of the protected areas, and the establishment of a reserve for emergencies or natural disasters, among other things.

Conservation International has worked in Timor-Leste for a decade and is the only international NGO focused on conservation and environmental issues in the country. Our goal is to help this nation develop a national protected area system to help them develop sustainably. So we’re putting the building blocks in place — from developing these MPAs to educating villagers on sustainable fishing and agricultural techniques. More recently, we have guided the collaboration between community conservation groups and dive operators to help build sustainable tourism programs on the island. The dive companies on the island are even helping train Timorese citizens to become licensed dive operators.

Q: What do the communities of Atauro get out of this?

A: Not only will the network benefit the communities, it will do so by protecting their precious natural resources, instead of destroying them — securing fish to eat and livelihoods through tourism.

Timor-Leste is currently one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, relying on oil as its main export — though these reserves are projected to run dry by 2023. In the face of looming economic collapse, conserving these marine areas and reefs for ecotourism could be this island nation’s greatest hope. The entire environmental sector in Timor-Leste remains relatively untapped — and this new protected area network offers an unprecedented opportunity for the communities that protect and rely on Atauro’s reefs to gain revenue from their conservation efforts through sustainable ecotourism.

Q: What’s the end game? 

A: The Atauro MPA network will enable individuals to take their futures into their own hands through a collective voice — addressing long-term issues like unemployment, food insecurity and availability of clean water, without relying entirely on the government.  

Over time, we hope this network can act as a model for regions all over Timor-Leste so other communities can start working with the private sector to develop sustainable ecotourism. 

Currently, the communities across the island are proposing that the government legally declare Atauro as a national park, which would solidify the recognition of its natural value and help push forward sustainable tourism.

Q: How can this MPA network have an impact beyond Atauro? 

A: This is the first moment in Timor-Leste’s history that a group of communities stands to benefit financially from their commitments to conservation. It’s a win-win, and a significant step in the nation’s drive to build its economy on sustainable tourism while protecting an area of unparalleled marine diversity. 

Atauro’s beautiful coral reefs are home to a wealth of fish, including one-third of the global population of whales and dolphins. A 2016 assessment done by Conservation International scientists found that these reefs have the highest average of reef fish species in the world

Given what we know about the role of oceans in halting climate change and their increasingly poor health due to human activity — the growing demand for seafood, the imperative to protect coral reefs and the marine life they support — it’s not a stretch to say the waters in the Atauro network are invaluable to the entire planet. 

Trudiann Dale is the country director of Conservation International Timor-Leste. Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Reefs in Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. (© Paul Hilton/Conservation International)

Further Reading: