It was a bright morning as nearly 200 people gathered in Manatuto, Timor-Leste, to share ideas about how to conserve their community’s marine resources with a team from USAID’s Coral Triangle Support Partnership. Being lucky enough to attend, I saw firsthand how this meeting of the minds linked program staff from Conservation International — USAID’s implementing partner — with the perspectives of one coastal community.
Through the Coral Triangle Support Partnership, USAID is supporting Timor-Leste’s efforts to anticipate and adapt to climate change and natural disasters, especially in coastal communities. The Timorese government is creating protected areas, called “no-take zones,” where fishing is prohibited. The goal is for fish to grow to healthy sizes, improving the chances that the species will survive. This is important not only for Timor-Leste’s fisheries, but also global fisheries. The highest fish diversity on the planet is in Southeast Asia.
Community participation in and support for this process is crucial, because so many people depend on the marine environment for income. At the meeting in Manatuto, fishermen, community leaders, women and representatives from local government raised concerns about what would happen when the fishing areas closed. They needed to be sure they could support their families. Representatives from USAID and Conservation International explained that only certain areas identified for replenishment of fish stocks would be closed, and only for a period of three years, and that during this time other areas would remain open for fishing. By the end of the meeting, there was a mutual understanding that fishing could not happen in these protected areas in order to allow the fish to regain their numbers and remain plentiful for future generations, but that in the meantime, people could still catch fish in other areas to support their families.
Timor-Leste is home to a rich variety of marine life and sits within the Coral Triangle, one of the most important areas in the world for coral and marine biodiversity. Covering just two percent of the global ocean, the Coral Triangle contains 75 percent of all coral species and 35 percent of the world’s coral reefs. In Manatuto, one of the country’s most biologically diverse areas, most people rely on fishing for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, some fishing practices damage the coral reefs and wildlife. Along with the growing effects of climate change, such practices place immense pressure on an already fragile environment.
By acknowledging community concerns and asking for their input, USAID and Conservation International are able to integrate local knowledge and customs into their work with the Timorese government. Discussions like this one strengthen community-government relationships and help establish community-based management systems that align with customary laws, called Tara Bandu, which guide people’s interactions with one another and with the environment. In the Tara Bandu process, communities set out guidelines for harvesting natural resources and the penalties for those who violate them.
As a result, the Timorese government’s National Plan of Action has the support of the people who are central to successful marine management practices. The plan sets out how Timor-Leste government will work contribute to the regional goals of the Coral Triangle Initiative.
One Manatuto fisherman, Feliz Fernandes, shared his excitement with me. “This meeting was very important,” he said, “so that we could hear directly from the teams how to protect our marine resources, so that in the future we can still have new species that may be already gone around the world.” Thinking about the program team’s scuba demonstration, he went on to say that he hopes to someday have his own scuba equipment, “so I can directly go and see the development of our marine resources in the protected areas.”
As a citizen of Timor-Leste, I share Feliz’s outlook. With USAID’s support, I hope my country will continue exploring these ideas to help communities in coastal areas conserve essential natural resources.