Timor-Leste Marks World Oceans Day with establishment of guidelines for interaction with marine mammals

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Timor-Leste in collaboration with Conservation International has signed the Guidelines for Interaction with Cetaceans (Whale, Dolphin, and Dugong) in Timor-Leste. The main purpose of establishing these guidelines is to ensure the sustainable development of the whale and dolphin watching industry by maximizing positive impacts and education.

Read more at conservation.org

Download the guidelines here

When Timor-Leste gained its independence in 2002, it was called “the world’s newest country”. Since then, studies by visiting scientists have revealed that it also has the world’s greatest marine biodiversity, pristine coral reefs and a spectacular annual cetacean migration. In recent years, ocean adventurers looking for somewhere new to dive had started to turn their attention to Timor-Leste, but the country has yet to gain recognition as a mainstream dive destination. Indeed, few potential visitors were aware that the country existed.

This year, that was set to change. Dive operators had been participating in international travel expos and they were starting to see the results of their collective efforts to put Timor-Leste on the tourism map. Their reputation for high quality service gave dive tourists the confidence to consider Timor-Leste for their next expedition. Almost all of the operators had received glowing reviews from their previous customers. Expectations were high for the 2020 season, but all of the hard-won bookings were cancelled as international flights were suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Dive operators in Timor-Leste are small, local businesses. Whilst they were instrumental in kick-starting the initial flow of tourists, they have had their challenges.  It had been difficult for them to promote Timor-Leste on a larger scale with their limited resources. They were also used to working individually, which limits scope for collective action for promotion or growth of the sector.

In 2018, Market Development Facility (MDF), with support from the Australian Government, brought the Timor-Leste dive community together to create the Dive Operators Working Group.  The group had already engaged in a destination marketing campaign which had started to deliver good results and had planned a range of activities aimed at developing the sector and protecting the marine environment.

Now, because of COVID-19, most of these activities have been put on hold as the tourism sector re-focuses its efforts on recovery.  For tourism operators in Timor-Leste, who were already facing many challenges, COVID-19 poses a serious threat. With that in mind, MDF has supported the production of a video to connect the Timor-Leste dive sector with the global diving community.  The video shares a compassionate message about the serious threat to the industry posed by COVID-19 while showcasing Timor-Leste’s unique assets with some breathtaking underwater footage. The operators want the world to know that they will stay positive through this crisis and will be enthusiastically waiting for the travelers to return: instead of being in despair, now it is ever more important to connect to the tourists and divers all over the world.

In the meantime, the Dive Operators Working Group is taking the time to reflect on the long-term goals of growing the industry. Various initiatives are in the pipeline: improving awareness about the need to protect Timor-Leste’s pristine marine life and advocacy to minimize the negative impact of construction projects on dive sites, along with the task of facilitating better relationship with government institutions relevant to conserving the marine life. The group was also planning a range of other activities in 2020, including hosting an international underwater photography competition to boost Timor-Leste’s visibility, capacity building for whale watching operations and further destination marketing efforts.

MDF is a multi-country initiative which promotes sustainable economic development, through higher incomes for women and men, in its partner countries. MDF connects individuals, businesses, governments and NGOs with each other, and with markets at home and abroad. This enhances investment and coordination and allows partnerships to flourish, strengthening inclusive economic growth.

Traditional Tais weavers are hoping that UNESCO recognition will help to preserve their craft for future generations 
Photo: Ann Turner/USAID’s Tourism For All Project  

Timorese Hand-Woven Textiles Strengthen Cultural Identity

Last March, Timor-Leste celebrated an important cultural milestone when it officially submitted its application for the country’s traditional textile – known as tais – to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to be inscribed as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding”. If successful, this will lead to Timor-Leste’s first-ever government-led UNESCO designation. Tais would then be listed alongside renowned cultural assets from other countries, such as traditional hand puppetry in Egypt, the Bisalhães black pottery manufacturing process in Portugal, and the ancient art of hand-crafting “phinisi” boats in Indonesia.

Video: Ann Turner/USAID’s Tourism For All Project

Speaking at the ceremony to witness the signing of the application, the Secretary of State for Art and Culture of Timor-Leste, Teofilo Caldas said, “I am confident that this nomination will gain the approval from UNESCO and that Tais will be recognized internationally – affirming our cultural identity as one people and one nation.”

UNESCO’s decision about Timor-Leste’s application will be given towards the end of 2020.

The UNESCO application conditions are stringent and preparation of the documentation was a lengthy process, starting in January 2019. USAID’s Tourism For All Project provided support to help Timorese authorities and stakeholders every step of the way, starting with the creation of a National Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage to coordinate the application procedure, and assistance to the Government of Timor-Leste in securing funding from UNESCO to finance the preparation of the nomination file.  One of the primary UNESCO requirements is the close involvement of the various stakeholders – ranging from Government representatives to national NGOs and community weaving groups – to ensure a full consensus supporting the application. This was achieved through extensive consultations that took place at a forum organized by USAID, on the theme “Protecting, Preserving, and Promoting Tais: the Road towards UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Recognition”.  More than 100 people from local and international organizations, development partners and tais weavers contributed to the drafting of a plan to safeguard the tais tradition, with a funding request from Timor-Leste to UNESCO for its implementation. The final step in the application process was the production of a short film required by UNESCO, to describe the significance of tais and the traditional spinning, dyeing and weaving skills used to make it.

The Secretary of State for Art and Culture of Timor-Leste with USAID’s Contracting Officer Representative and members of the National Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Timor-Leste
Photo: Elvis Guterres/USAID’s Tourism For All Project

Local NGO Timor Aid has been working with tais weavers for more than two decades, and the organization’s Culture Program Team Leader Rosalia M Soares  represented the organization on the National ICH committee: “We are bursting with pride to see our long-term dream turn into reality,” she said, “We would like to thank USAID’s Tourism For All project for their insight into that dream, and for triggering the tais registration process with UNESCO. We are deeply grateful for the support of the American people.”

Timor Aid co-founder Maria do Ceu Lopes da Silva added: ”UNESCO recognition would be a huge step forward to ensure the preservation of traditional Tais production. It will have a positive impact at national and international levels.  UNESCO recognition will enhance national pride, strengthen cultural identity, and officially acknowledge and honor weavers’ artwork and their skills. It will provide an opportunity to raise the recognition of Tais not only as tradition, but also as a tourism product, which will contribute to expanding economic opportunities for rural women. Tais could be the future Roving Ambassador of Timor-Leste for the promotion of our national cultural heritage around the world.”.

This traditional hand-made textile, woven by women across Timor-Leste, plays an important role in the life of Timorese people. The entire process of producing tais requires delicate skills, patience and time. Raw cotton is grown in community farms, processed and spun by hand, and dyed using locally-available plants, roots and trees. The yarn is woven on a simple backstrap loom: some pieces produced by expert weavers take months to complete and can sell for hundreds of dollars to visitors. Other items are reserved for community use and are not for sale. Timor Aid’s Ms. Soares explained: “Tais is ever-present as a cultural necessity in the lives of all Timorese regardless of socio-economic background. Tais is an imperative presence during birth, traditional marriage contracts, funerals, and in traditional rituals. The Timorese must wear Tais for all traditional ceremonies. They also offer Tais to foreign guests, and they wear Tais to represent the country abroad”.

Not only is tais an important source of income for Timorese women and their families, it is an essential expression of culture. Ms. Lopes da Silva said that local history and cultural legends are expressed in the motifs woven into tais, which vary from region to region. For example in Oe-cusse, where Portuguese missionaries brought the Catholic faith to Timor-Leste more than five centuries ago, Ms. Lopes da Silva explained that nuns introduced European patterns on paper, “to teach the weavers in Oé-cusse to incorporate European religious themes, such as angels, macramé copies, even Botticelli inspired images, into their tais”. In other municipalities, tais motifs are inspired by ancient traditional Timorese legends, such as the myth of the crocodile, and local flora and fauna.

The 24-year struggle for independence from Indonesia caused irreparable loss to the traditional ways of producing tais: “Many master weavers died. Immigration and forced displacement of Timorese from rural areas to cities, from highlands to valleys, and environmental destruction contributed to the shortfall of raw materials and loss of skills and original designs, many of which were never to be recovered. Timor-Leste doesn’t have a written tradition. Unlike other countries, particularly in the Asia region, where traditional textiles have recorded history, Timor-Leste’s Tais production was based on memory alone,” Ms. Lopes Da Silva said, “Grandmothers passed the weaving skills to their daughters, from daughters to granddaughters and so on.  It was the method of creating a memory chain of knowledge. Cultural heritage is important, because it makes the past continuous. Weaving, songs, dances, languages and rituals, strengthen our cultural identity. They connect us to a range of emotions, feelings, offer information, inspiration, education, myths and facts about the lifestyle and development of our communities, relationships, successes and tragedies.”

Beyond its cultural significance, tais is one of the “must have” souvenirs bought by tourists, a vital market for local weavers. Tais also inspires the fledgling fashion industry in Timor-Leste, presenting an opportunity, but also a threat to the integrity of tais culture: “Urgent monetary needs force the weavers to produce cheap tais, woven with industrial yarn of poor quality, for quick sale. This creates conflict between tradition and modernity,” Ms. Lopes da Silva warned.

As Timor-Leste struggles with economic hardship and uncertainty about the future of its tourism industry in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Lopes da Silva hopes that Timorese women – who traditionally work from home – will keep producing their woven art and lay down stocks for later sale.  In the meantime, she is looking forward the day when the UNESCO decision is announced: “At international level, there’s an expectation of an upsurge in demand by museums, collectors, galleries, and international exhibitions,” she said, “Which in turn could trigger integrated rural development investment in the environment, agriculture and agroforestry, where the raw materials for tais-making come from: cotton, seeds, roots, plants and tree barks to extract natural colours”. She is hopeful that there will be increased institutional support for the creation of a National Tais Museum, more preservation work, curatorship training and the development of small to medium textile weaving industries. Timor Aid also has plans for a Tais Resource Centre and intends to ask the Government to declare a National Tais Day. These initiatives would serve not only to attract tourists, but also to raise awareness in Timorese youth about the importance of preserving their own cultural assets. And if the tais application is successful, as a result of their experience, national organisations – especially government officials – will also be able to apply for additional nomination files for other Timorese cultural assets in the future.

Ann Turner/USAID’s Tourism For All Project

The whole community participates in a ceremony to celebrate the corn harvest inSuai, Covalima Municipality in 2012. Wearing tais is required at this event.

Photos: Chamot/Timor Aid

Photo courtesy National Directorate of Tourism

To celebrate World Ocean Day on June 8th, USAID’s Tourism For All project organised a “virtual launch” for the announcement of the Ombai-Wetar Strait as a Mission Blue Hope Spot, following a successful application by the Assosiasaun Turizmu Maritima Timor-Leste (ATM-TL).   Hope Spots are special places that are critical to the health of the ocean that help to recognize, empower and support local communities and governments around the world in their efforts to protect their marine ecosystems. The ‘Ombai-Wetar Strait Hope Spot’ recognizes the importance of Timor-Leste’s northern ocean, from Batugade to Jaco Island, with its globally-significant coral reefs and marine biodiversity – and also the potential for sustainable marine ecotourism development.

Photo courtesy USAID’s Tourism For All Project/Ann Turner

With the nomination, Timor-Leste joins a marine conservation network spanning more than 100 countries, benefiting from Mission Blue’s expertise and support in building collaboration between partners to advocate for legal protection of its Hot Spot, with increased visibility and opportunities for education and marketing through the organisation’s global platform.

The U.S. Government has provided major support for ATM-TL and its work in securing the Ombai-Wetar Strait Hope Spot nomination.

“I am delighted that our Tourism For All Project has been able to make a tangible contribution. Natural resources protection is vital to the United States’ vision for the Indo-Pacific and the Hope Spot designation is important recognition of that,” said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to Timor-Leste.

Former Timor-Leste President and Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos Horta participated in the Hope Spot virtual launch, which was broadcast on local television and globally through social media.

In his message, Mr Ramos-Horta said that Timor-Leste had the world’s greatest marine biodiversity, and whilst reefs in neighbouring Coral Triangle countries had suffered damage from dynamite fishing and other destructive environmental practices, Timor-Leste’s reefs were the healthiest in the region.  “The Hope Spot means that environmentally-aware tourists and scientists, they’ll all want to come and visit to study the Ombai-Wetar zone.”  Mr Ramos-Horta emphasised that whilst the Hot Spot may open a window of opportunity to diversify the country’s economy through tourism development, the benefits must extend to the whole community. “I would like to thank the United States Ambassador Kathleen Fitzpatrick for her hard work and her efforts to increase financial support for Timor-Leste, with the focus on sustainable tourism.  I would also like to thank her for her leadership and USAID for its commitment to supporting the Tourism For All project. Tourism is not just for some of the people, it is for all of the people,” he said.  Mr Ramos-Horta concluded his remarks with an environmental message: “I am asking the whole community to stop littering, especially those who live by the sea or along rivers,” he said, explaining that when people throw rubbish into the river, it is washed out to sea and it damages the marine environment.

Ramos-Horta’s remarks were echoed by several participants in the virtual launch, including university students and members of environmental groups.

Timor-Leste’s Director General of Tourism, Jose Quintas, congratulated ATM-TL for its success in securing the Hope Spot nomination, saying that it would help to bring tourists to the country to see whales, dolphins, dugong and its pristine coral reefs. “We are proud of the Hope Spot nomination. It’s an advantage for Timor-Leste, but everyone needs to make a contribution to protecting the marine environment, especially in coastal communities, as well as in the private sector, the dive centres and marine tourism operators. The government also has to make sure that the regulations are implemented properly, continue to protect our marine biodiversity for future generations.”

The successful Hope Spot nomination was ATM-TL’s first major achievement, following the establishment of the organization in 2019 with support from USAID’s Tourism For All project.  The Hope Spots initiative was founded by the renowned ocean explorer, scientist and founder of Mission Blue, Dr. Sylvia Earle. The Mission Blue alliance includes more than 200 respected ocean conservation groups and like-minded organizations.  In a video message shown at the ATM-TL launch last August, Dr Earle said: “I want to salute you for what you are doing in Timor-Leste, for celebrating your ocean, taking care of your ocean and sharing it with people from all over the world.  With hundreds of blue whales swimming past Dili every year, families of sperm whales and many different species of dolphins so close to shore and dugongs just five minutes away from the International Airport, you have the most extraordinary and precious blue world in your hands.  Truly incredible! I want to assure you that you have mine and Mission Blue’s full support and I very much hope to experience Timor Leste’s amazing blue wonderland myself soon: you truly are reason for hope.”

Bringing together coastal communities, local organisations and marine tourism operators in Timor-Leste, ATM-TL is working to develop the sector, whilst ensuring the conservation of the marine resources on which they all depend. Marine Biologist Professor Karen Edyvane, who has been conducting scientific studies and supporting sustainable community-based tourism development in Timor-Leste since 2006, was elected ATM President last August, with a board of directors drawn from community, business and government representatives.

“The Ombai-Wetar Hope Spot is a great achievement,” Dr Edyvane said, “It increases the potential to market the country as a major global marine tourism destination, highlighting Timor-Leste’s untouched, species-rich coral reefs and spectacular marine wildlife.   Importantly, the Hope Spot also recognises the ATM-TL and Timor-Leste’s commitment to developing community-based conservation and marine ecotourism livelihoods, and supporting improved ocean protection”

Prof. Edyvane added, “USAID’s vision and support has been vital in the creation of the ATM-TL.  It’s been amazing to see all the marine tourism stakeholders – operators, businesses, conservationists, regulators, scientists, managers – coming together, sharing, talking and working together to create a shared vision and for ocean conservation and marine tourism development in Timor-Leste.”

Cassio Schumacher, General Manager of Compass Diving, a member of ATM-TL, said, “I have been involved with marine tourism in other countries around Southeast Asia, and it isn’t always the case that so many stakeholders of a sector, industry, have the opportunity to work together towards its development. This is where I feel that ATM-TL is contributing the most: as a platform for it to happen. The challenge is, and will be in the future, to diplomatically achieve balance between different interests and contribute towards a reasonable equilibrium between the growth of marine tourism and development of conversation and research efforts while still listening actively to different –  and possibly disagreeing – opinions”.

Prof. Edyvane explained that there are many challenges for strengthening and growing the tourism industry in Timor-Leste, some of which are dependent on complex, macro-economic factors:  “Other issues are specific to marine tourism – from lack of boating infrastructure, ensuring maritime and diving safety, to the urgent need for national guidelines and standards, licensing and regulations for marine tourism activities. ATM-TL have developed a national vision and detailed plan for the marine tourism industry and ocean conservation, working with partners and tour operators on improving marine tourism marketing and promotion.  And in partnership with USAID, we’re also running our first marine tourism grants program – to help implement some of these priority activities and further develop the marine tourism sector.”

The Ombai-Wetar Strait passes between mainland Timor and the island of Atauro, home to the President of the General Assembly of the ATM-TL, Avelino Fernandes.

“The Hope Spot will raise Timor-Leste’s international profile for its beautiful marine resources and strengthen economic growth through promoting tourism,” Mr Fernandes said, “I think it will help the local community to consider how protecting the marine environment can also improve their lives through fishing, tourism and marketing local products.”

Atauro made international headlines in 2016 with the publication of a survey by Conservation International, which found that the island had the most bio-diverse waters in the world.  For most of the year, the island is too arid for agriculture and local communities depend on fishing to support their families. The challenge is to develop alternative livelihoods through tourism, whilst protecting the marine environment. Prof. Edyvane explained, “We need to ensure that local people and communities are given proper training, opportunity and long-term support to develop businesses in marine ecotourism.  This is why I think developing community-based marine ecotourism and livelihoods is probably one of the most important goals of the Hope Spot.  If we cannot link ocean protection to real economic benefits and employment for local communities – through ecotourism – any successes will be fragile, short-lived and likely, fail.” 

Mr Fernandes agrees: “The community can earn a living by fishing and tourism, but it must be done sustainably,” he said, “We need to strengthen regulations and help the community to diversify its economic activities so that they don’t depend so much on marine resources. ATM-TL plans to increase environmental education and protection at local and national level to encourage community-based eco-tourism.”

Prof. Edyvane added: “I think Atauro Island is also showing us how best to progress marine ecotourism and ocean conservation in the rest of the country.  It’s the recognised birthplace of ecotourism in Timor-Leste – it also pioneered the nation’s first eco-lodge, planned, built and led entirely by the local community.  And it did this with very little support from the international community. So, the important lesson here is that actions really need to be local, targeted and community-led to be sustainable – and they don’t always need to be big and expensive.”

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Timor-Leste – and particularly Atauro Island – were poised to gain an increase in dive tourists. Local businesses had started to spring up to cater to visitors:  handicraft workshops, guesthouses and land-based excursions. But now their income is gone and the community will once more be relying on fishing and reef gleaning in order to subsist.

“We still have a lot of hard work ahead,” Prof. Edyvane said, “But this pause can be a silver lining and lead to a new beginning and reimagination of how tourism in Timor-Leste can be more robust, profitable and impactful in the future. This is an opportunity to galvanize tourism stakeholders and reboot tourism in alignment with the National Tourism Policy. When shelter-in-place orders are lifted and businesses reopen their doors, a new chapter will begin for Timor-Leste tourism.”

Ann Turner/USAID’s Tourism For All Project

Young Timorese Combine Culture and Craft to Create New Products for the Tourism Market

Four talented young Timorese artists were struggling to find work and get ahead in life, in a country with high rates of unemployment and few opportunities to enter the world of business. Timor-Leste’s struggle to gain its independence left many of its young people with little formal education and the need to rebuild its economy from scratch.

Jose Pereira, Aderito De Jesus, Zacarias Freitas and Domingos Ramos Salsinha – all in their early twenties – have seen their lives transformed after a ceramics production training course at the East Timor Development Agency (ETDA), funded by USAID’s Tourism For All Project. They were selected for their artistic talent to receive technical training from a master potter, combined with the business skills they need to sell their pottery.

Timor-Leste has always had a tradition of making pottery for domestic use, but the ETDA project has taken the craft to a new level, with a more robust, glazed product, featuring highly decorative cultural motifs, designed to appeal to the tourist market.

Domingos Ramos Salsinha was unemployed and at risk of taking the wrong path in life. He says that the course gave him a new direction: “I never thought I would be able to be so creative or able to learn new skill. I am so proud to be a Timorese youth and because I make this local pottery, I know I am promoting my country for others around the world and especially promoting Timor-Leste tourism that I believe will make everyone happy”

Whilst all of the trainees have started to earn money through their pottery, they also value the opportunity to express themselves through the ceramic arts. Zacarias Freitas explained: “I started to love this new skill, especially expressing myself through art. I have truly dedicated myself to learn this skill and be the best I can… I have a dream to make many different styles of pottery in the future and to promote my country to people around the world.”

The new pottery range has been on sale at a new store front at ETDA and the workshop has received orders from the Timorese government for commissioned pieces to offer as commemorative gifts for visiting dignitaries and to mark milestones in the country’s history. The products are also being shipped to Melbourne, Australia, expanding their market from domestic to international customers.

“I have always enjoyed painting”, says Jose Pereira. ”This is the way I can express love to my country. When I see the result of my work, I appreciate what I have done and I really love and take pride in what I am doing. I also want to improve my skills and to give the best of me so others through the skills I used in my painting can benefit. I want to thank ETDA for giving me a future.”

Now, the original four trainee potters have mastered their art, they are passing on the skills that they have perfected to other students. Aderito De Jesus dropped out of school and was convinced he had no future. Now he is a trainer and has also started to learn English. “Painting motivates and inspires me and painting this local pottery I am able to express my feeling to others. I love painting because through painting I am promoting my country. In this way I believe my contribution as a Timorese will contribute to the development of tourism in Timor Leste, he explained.

”The change in Aderito’s personality is amazing,” said ETDA Senior Manager Januario Mok: “We have made an investment in Timorese youth – to bring them new hope – in that they can find jobs or at least earn money and thus, hopefully improve their lives – no doubt their families will also benefit. All four of our trainees show a marked change in outlook, which suggests an impact on their lives through self-confidence, pride in skills and earning power”.

Ann Turner/USAID’s Tourism For All Project