Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

New Beginnings in East Timorese Forest Management

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

New Beginnings in East Timorese Forest Management

Article excerpt

East Timor's remarkable emergence as a new democratic nation-state following twenty-four years of military repression under Indonesian rule brings with it a whole new set of challenges for the small and impoverished island territory. Following two-and-a-half years of governance under the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) which mainly focused on emergency relief and reconstruction, attention is now turning to longer-term needs and priorities for sustained economic development. Among the array of pressing development requirements facing the fledgling nation is the need to create a new strategic national management approach for forest resources. Historically, forestry issues and forest policy in East Timor have tended to be accorded a low priority by successive governments seeking to generate development production and revenues. This is perhaps understandable given the comparatively modest contribution that the sector has made towards regional Gross Domestic Product. Official Indonesian government figures for 1990, for example, illustrate that within the agricultural farm sector, forestry production accounted for just under 1 per cent of GDP for the province of East Timor. (1) The figure is indicative of the limited extent of available commercial timber and non-timber forest products across the new nation.

However, this rather narrowly defined economic measure of benefit arguably and significantly undervalues the importance of forestry and forested land in East Timor. With upwards of 80 per cent of the population heavily reliant on smallholder agriculture and the pursuit of semi-subsistence rainfed cropping regimes, land resources--particularly forested land--remain a key component of longer-term sustainability and prosperity. Hundreds of upland farming communities are deeply reliant on the forests and woodlands for their livelihood. Among other resources, forest land provides timber for building materials and firewood, as well as a whole range of non-timber forest products for use in traditional medicines, textile dyes, supplementary foods and fibres for an assortment of baskets and implements. Widespread hunting of faunal species including birds, fish, feral pigs, deer and a range of marsupials contributes to rural diets and small-scale marketing opportunities. (2) More generally, however, the need to retain forested watersheds in an island environment already prone to high rates of natural erosion is a vital associated value.

The legacy of twenty-four years of Indonesian administration and of the long period of Portuguese colonial government before it is one of neglect and depletion of the forest reserves and woodlands. Previous regimes denied, or at least failed to encourage, a constructive role for local communities in the management and conservation of this resource. Restoring the integrity of the forests in the context of balancing national interests and local claims on forested lands is therefore the central challenge for forestry policy in East Timor.

This paper explores some of the forestry options and strategies currently under development, especially the prospects for recognising and supporting local indigenous rights over land and promoting community-based collaboration in resource management and conservation. The study is preliminary, given the absence of information on forest inventory and the current state of bio-physical resources. It begins with an analysis of key environmental and historical factors that have contributed to the existing pattern of forest cover and continue to inform and constrain contemporary forestry practice across the country. At this juncture in the history of East Timor, there is an unprecedented opportunity to learn from the lessons of the past and set the policy framework for a sustainable future.

Perspectives on forest ecology in East Timor

East Timor is a comparatively small but mountainous territory, extending roughly 300 km in length and 100 km at its widest point. …

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