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"People Need Nature to Thrive”: Recovering From Conflict Through Conservation in Timor-Leste

In my tiny, half-an-island country of Timor-Leste, cemeteries smell of jasmine and come to life on All Saints’ Day. Families have picnics and kids roam wild over the tombstones. Here, stepping on somebody else’s family tombstones is not seen as an offense but as the norm; after all, since there isn’t enough land to hold so many graves, not stepping on one is impossible unless you have mastered levitation.

We eat, drink and pray for our long-gone relatives. We spend small fortunes rebuilding and redecorating our cemetery plots. In my 13 years working and living in Timor-Leste, I’ve found that my compatriots smile and try to use humor to make the best of any situation — a seeming lightheartedness that masks the atrocities endured by so many of them, which have filled so many mass graves.

Over several centuries, the people of Timor-Leste have experienced prolonged periods of war and armed conflict. This history consciously or unconsciously shapes the way in which we Timorese relate to one another and to the natural resources upon which we depend for food and livelihoods.

A Turbulent Past

Timor-Leste was first invaded by Portugal, then by Japan during World War II, then by Indonesia. When we saw our independence restored in 2002, we became Southeast Asia’s youngest nation-state.

As a result of the longstanding waves of conflict, it’s challenging for the Timorese people to invest in a sense of community. Due to relocation of entire villages to new places, the creation of new cities, the renaming of towns and landmarks, transmigration, and the logging of our forests, men and women have had to cope with shifting rules and norms about natural resource management, especially who has rights and access to coastal and forest areas.

Most of the time, these natural areas could not cope with this increase in demand for the services that they provide, such as water and food. Driven by famine, and lacking the local knowledge required to interact with these new environments in a sustainable way, our people overexploited most of the areas surrounding the new settlements.

People didn’t know better. Some of them had never before seen the ocean; others had never experienced the hailstorms in the mountains that transverse Timor-Leste. Thrust into these new environments, much of their traditional knowledge that had been passed down for generations was suddenly irrelevant.

This lack of local knowledge – the loss of our sacred connection to nature – compounded the environmental problems we face today, including land degradation, erosion, and deforestation caused by increasing demand for fuelwood.

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