Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: WSJ: East Timor's Startling Underwater World

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

The Wall Street Journal May 17, 2002

DIVERSIONS

East Timor Faces Independence -- And a Startling Underwater World

By LYNN LEE Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

DILI, East Timor -- Fernando Freitas Barreto lives on the edge of an underwater Eden. From the hills surrounding his hometown he can see azure waters, dark patches marking coral reefs, frolicking dolphins and the occasional pod of pilot whales.

"God made the sea so very different from the land," says Mr. Barreto, a stocky 21-year-old English student at the University of Timor Lorosa'e who grew up in the coastal town of Baucau, east of the capital Dili.

East Timor's largely unexplored waters may well be the diving world's newest hot discovery. Striking sea walls plunge sharply downward and schools of colorful angelfish and batfish mingle amid an array of hard and soft corals. Pelagic fish -- surface dwellers such as tuna, mackerel and manta rays -- are common. Sometimes whale sharks and turtles can be seen, while manatees, endangered mammals that look like a cross between a hairy hippopotamus and a dolphin, are known to visit the shallow waters off the beaches outside Dili.

"The first time I went down, I was amazed because it was so beautiful," says Mr. Barreto, who works in one of Dili's three dive shops.

Until recently, however, underwater adventures were the last thing on the mind of East Timorese like Mr. Barreto. Fish was for food, the ocean a mystery and scuba diving an unknown luxury. "I was too busy worrying about survival," he explains.

It isn't hard to understand why. East Timor, which will become the world's newest nation at midnight Sunday and celebrate Independence Day on Monday, is a land in ruins. For 25 years it was occupied by Indonesia. After the East Timorese voted for independence in August 1999, militiamen, backed by elements of the Indonesian military, torched villages, destroyed towns and terrorized the countryside. For days, Mr. Barreto hid in a cave behind his family home in Baucau, before emerging to find it in shambles.

But the United Nations peacekeepers, diplomats and aid workers who flooded into East Timor in the wake of the terror brought with them more than just the skills and tools to help steer this fledgling nation toward independence. Most also came with fat pay packets and a taste for adventure. Little wonder then, that in a place where entertainment options are few and far between, diving is the recreation of choice for resident foreigners.

Dili Dive, based in Darwin, Australia, was quick to spot the potential of East Timor's seas in 2000, opening Dili's first dive shop. Since then two other dive businesses have set up shop and the country's Trade and Investment Division lists at least five other companies which have registered to start diving-related businesses.

For now, the majority of East Timor's divers are from the expatriate community. Postconflict East Timor, with its dearth of infrastructure, will only appeal to a rare breed of traveler.

But tourist ventures such as dive shops might eventually bring much-needed income to what is one of Asia's poorest countries. According to East Timor's National Planning Commission, 40% of the population survives on less than 50 cents a day.

But despite the appeal of the tourist dollar, East Timor's leaders have made it clear they aren't keen on attracting hordes of visitors looking for a good time on the cheap. And that attitude may help the country avoid the tourism and environmental mistakes that other countries have made.

"The Timorese are very conservative people with a strong sense of their own culture," says Elena Gari, a U.N. tourism official working at the Ministry of Economic Affairs. "They are afraid large numbers of foreigners will dilute their culture."

East Timor's draft policy on tourism, which the government will debate after independence, states: "To promote ecotourism that actively assists the conservation of the natural environment and its cultural significance through offering services provided by village community-based ventures."

It is a policy that Mr. Barreto's employers, Ann Turner and her husband Wayne Lovell, have embraced. Their dive shop, the Free Flow, was set up in Dili in early 2001. "Ecotourism makes perfect sense to us," says Mr. Lovell. "It's a perfect fit. The government wants to preserve the environment. We want to preserve the environment because it's good for our business."

For British-born Ms. Turner and Mr. Lovell, the stakes are high. They have wagered their life savings on their Timor venture. Two years ago they quit their jobs, he was a news producer covering stories in war zones ranging from the former Yugoslavia to Africa, and she was a journalist based in London, and decided to pursue "the dream."

"I was dodging bullets in Kosovo when Ann called to tell me that my company was offering generous redundancy packages." Mr. Lovell recalls. Then, gesturing toward the sea from which he has just emerged after a dive, he smiles and says: "I decided there and then to take redundancy. We knew what we wanted to do next."

The couple had dived for years, but wanted to make it a bigger part of their lives. For months, they traveled looking for the perfect spot to set up their dive shop. War-ravaged East Timor wasn't an obvious choice. But a single visit, made in early 2001 on the recommendation of a journalist friend who had snorkeled while on assignment in Dili, changed their lives. "We came, we did four dives, thought about it for a day and that was that," says Ms. Turner. "The following week, we sold our house in England and moved everything to East Timor."

Dili, in January 2001, was a burned-out town. The buildings that were still standing had no roofs, windows or doors. For weeks, the couple slept on the porch of a basic single-story building that served as their office-cum-home while they waited for their shop to be built next door. Electricity to run equipment for refilling air tanks was in short supply and they had to import a petrol-powered compressor for power. Contractual laws to govern even something as basic as a lease were nonexistent. Even today, agreements in East Timor are made based on nothing more than trust.

But despite the difficulties, Mr. Lovell and Ms. Turner are committed to staying. "Timor is our home now," Ms Turner declares one hot afternoon on the porch of her comfortably furnished office. Today, she is excited about the Free Flow's new project to teach diving to the East Timorese. Mr. Barreto and his dive buddy and colleague Jose Augustino will be their first students. Ms. Turner hopes to be able to offer free dive courses to other interested East Timorese. It is all part of the greater strategy to conserve the backbone of the Free Flow's business, Timor's thriving reefs.

"We want to get as many East Timorese in the water as possible," says Ms. Turner. "We even want to get [East Timor President-elect] Xanana Gusmao to dive. When people see how beautiful it is underwater, they'll want to preserve what they have."

Ms. Turner's concern for the environment isn't misplaced. Dili's large number of foreigners eager for seafood has been a boon for fishermen. Restaurants serving lobsters, grilled fish and barbecued prawns have sprung up across town. But East Timor's marine life has suffered as a result. Irreversible damage has been caused by the large traps used for harvesting fish, and the removal of shells and corals for sale as ornaments at stalls near Dili's beaches.

But policy makers are moving to curb such practices. "Diving is great in East Timor, let's keep it that way," says a sign on the wall of the Ministry of Agriculture's Fisheries and Marine Environment Division, or FMED. Regulations dealing with unsustainable fishing methods and the use of diving equipment have been drafted, and are under consideration. The Free Flow has attended consultations with the FMED and offered advice about implementing the policies.

"They have been most conscientious and most committed in protecting the environment," says Alan Stockwell, a fisheries and environmental specialist and a consultant at the FMED. Mr. Stockwell, who dives regularly, says compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, East Timor's undersea world is in good shape.

But until the draft regulations on the environment and on tourism become law, fishermen and dive operators can do what they want without penalty. Not only that: The uncertainty caused by the lack of a legal framework has left entrepreneurs up in the air. Many are afraid the government will enact laws that aren't business-friendly and are cautious about making new investments until contractual obligations are defined.

Plans for the Free Flow's dive lodge are on hold. They have chosen a spot on a beach outside Dili and have permission from the villagers living nearby. But unless complicated land ownership issues are resolved, Mr. Lovell and Ms Turner aren't likely to proceed. Years of colonialism have made the situation as complex as it is emotional. The Indonesians issued their own land titles, as did the Portuguese who ruled for some 500 years prior to the invasion. Figuring out who owns what and where will take time.

"We've got to be optimistic," says Ms. Turner during one of the Free Flow's regular social gatherings. Here the drinks flow freely and fish are the focus of conversations. Most of the divers obtained their Professional Association of Diving Instructors certifications from the Free Flow's instructor, Luke Jones, a young Briton who had previously worked at Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Since teaming up with Mr. Lovell and Ms. Turner, Mr. Jones has taught more than 100 people how to dive. Most are expatriates, but Mr. Jones says teaching East Timorese divers is his most challenging task. "It's the language barrier," he says during a pool session for Mr. Barreto and his course mates. "It's important to get across the message that diving can be fun but also dangerous."

The Timorese may get free lessons. But foreigners have to cough up $300 for the basic PADI Open Water course, and $50 for a guided dive. Some operators in Bali or Australia charge half those rates. Dili's expatriates are willing to pay, but as the U.N. scales back its presence and aid workers start their exodus, the Free Flow has started to spread the word by advertising in Bali and Darwin and is building a Web site.

A major attraction of diving in East Timor is that so much remains unexplored. The Free Flow generally takes clients to six or seven sites. Most aren't more than an hour's drive from Dili. But more-experienced divers often rent equipment and take off on their own. "We hope to attract divers looking for something different," says Mr. Lovell. "Plus, at the end of the day, they get to show off their log books and say they went diving in a recovering war zone."

It is an ironic kind of snob appeal. There are divers who will travel to the strangest places to explore a new site. But for Timorese like Mr. Barreto, there is no need to go so far. "I never knew there was so much to see. And it's all right there."

A job advertisement on a notice board in Dili led him to the Free Flow this past October. Since then, he has been introduced to a whole new world. Tuesday, Mr. Barreto passed his final test and became a qualified PADI Open Diver.

"Learning English is good," he says. "It will be useful when I take all the courses on diving. I want to learn everything. One day, I want to work as a dive master."

* * *

All You Need to Know

The diver who makes it to East Timor will find there is plenty to see, but plenty of hard work involved in seeing it. Chartering a boat costs $700, so shore dives are by far the most common way to go. Be prepared to swim at least 50 meters out to sea before making the descent underwater. Currents can often be strong and big waves sometimes make entering and exiting the water a challenge.

But the beauty of diving in East Timor is that it is largely unexplored territory. The following is a sampling of dive sites that have been discovered. Most are within an hour's drive of Dili. The Free Flow's dive safari includes transport to and from these sites. Alternatively, divers can hire a car for about $60 a day. Road conditions are passable and the journey to the sites can be breathtakingly beautiful.

1. Dili Rock: A challenging dive. Currents can be strong and swirling sand can sometimes affect visibility. The reef descends gently before plunging dramatically. Hard corals abound. Turtles, manta rays and lionfish are regularly sighted here. There are also schools of batfish, angelfish and butterfly fish.

2. Black Rock: Another site where manta rays have been known to play. Black Rock's sheer walls and strong currents make it an ideal site to see pelagic fish. It isn't for novice divers.

3. Dollar Beach: The place to be if you want to see manatees. Clumps of seaweed thrive in the shallow waters at Dollar Beach, making it an ideal mating ground for these endangered mammals. This is an excellent place for new divers. The sloping reef is home to plenty of hard and soft corals. Sharks and turtles are regular visitors. So are weekend sun seekers eager to get away from the monotony of Dili. Come on a weekday if you are looking for solitude.

4. K41: Forty-one kilometers to the east of Dili, K41 is a favorite among divers. A family of manatees has been known to make occasional appearances here. Unlike most East Timor beaches, K41 has a pebble beach littered with big rocks. Waves can be huge at times but once in the water, the dive is fairly straightforward. On one side a wall plunges into the deep. On the other, the slope is gentler but no less dramatic. There is a large variety of sponges and corals. A good spot for night dives.

5. Whale Shark Point: So named because this was the first place in which a whale shark was sighted. The large but harmless creatures are known to visit around August. But even if you aren't there during the right season this is a lovely cove and a lovely dive. As with most of Timor's sites, there are corals aplenty. Less-experienced divers can opt to explore a vast but relatively gentle reef within the cove.

6. Atauro Island: This largely unexplored island, some three hours by boat from Dili, offers plenty of diving possibilities. On the way there, be prepared to see hundreds of dolphins and even pods of whales. On the way back the sunset can be awe-inspiring. Chartering a boat to Atauro costs between $500 and $700. Most who have done the trip will agree it is worth every cent.

Lynn Lee is a former employee of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor.


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