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Nature-Based Development: Conservation Pays Off for Communities in Timor-Leste

October 22, 2019

Atauro, Timor-Leste (October 22, 2019) – Today, the communities of Atauro Island, a diver’s paradise located just off the coast of Timor-Leste, announced that they have unified the island’s twelve marine protected areas into a single network, with the goal of strengthening conservation efforts — and getting paid for it. It is the first time in the nation’s history that a group of communities stand to benefit financially from their commitments to conservation.

As a result of the new protected area network, dive tourism businesses in the area have agreed to pay Atauro’s community conservation groups for access to the network’s pristine dive sites. Revenue will support the management and monitoring of the protected areas and the establishment of a shared account for emergencies to be used at the discretion of the communities.

The efforts reflect the region’s aspirations for nature-based development, based on tourism, with Atauro uniquely positioned for success. The island is located about a one hour boat ride from the capital of Dili and, according to research by Conservation International Timor-Leste, its waters are teeming with some of the most biodiverse marine life in the world, including one-third of the world’s population of whales and dolphins.

“The reefs of Atauro Island are invaluable to the people of Timor-Leste — and to the entire planet. Keeping the reefs healthy — protecting them from bleaching, sustaining thriving fish populations, stopping pollution — is vital to the future of the island and those who call it home,” said Trudiann Dale, country director for Conservation International-Timor-Leste. “The ecotourism initiative within the new protected area network offers an unprecedented opportunity for the communities that protect and rely on these reefs to benefit from their conservation.”

Conservation International has worked in Timor-Leste for a decade and has led the most significant research on the region’s biodiversity, including a 2016 assessment that found Atauro’s reefs to have the highest average of reef fish species per site in the world. An additional study recorded more than 2,280 whales and dolphins — including superpods of up to 600 individuals — from 11 different species.

More recently, Conservation International has guided this collaboration between the community conservation groups and dive operators. As Timor-Leste develops a regulatory framework, Conservation International has developed guidelines to assist the country in establishing responsible tourism centered around whale and dolphin watching.

Dale says that the unification and agreement with diving companies is “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.”

Due to the biological value and potential for nature-based development, the island’s communities are currently proposing the national government legally declare Atauro Island a National Park with Conservation International’s support.

Photographs available: Editors please credit photographs.

Video available:


Emmeline Johansen, Regional Communications Director, Asia-Pacific Field Division, Conservation International, +64 277 793 401,

Kipp Lanham, Media Relations Manager, Conservation International, +1-703-341-2405,

About Conservation International Timor-Leste

Conservation International has worked in Timor-Leste since 2009, establishing its office in 2012. Conservation International is working directly with the government and local communities to halt the climate crisis while improving food security and livelihoods for the people of Timor-Leste, primarily by establishing and sustainably managing critical protected areas on land and at sea. For more, visit @citimorleste and

About Conservation International

Conservation International uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature that people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, Conservation International works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about Conservation International, the groundbreaking “Nature Is Speaking” campaign and its series of virtual reality projects: “Drop in the Ocean”, “My Africa,” “Under the Canopy” and “Valen’s Reef.” Follow Conservation International’s work on our Human Nature blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.