|Subject: WSJ: East Timor's Startling
Received from Joyo Indonesian News
The Wall Street Journal May 17, 2002
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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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