I was nervous as the 4×4 bumped along the dusty road to Behau. It was an excited nervousness though. I had never experienced a Tara Bandu formalisation before, and I knew the long journey the community had gone through to get here.
Five days before the formalisation I visited Behau, a coastal village about 40 km to the east of Timor-Leste’s capital city of Dili, to meet with community leaders and make final arrangements.
“The community can’t wait to have their own Tara Bandu, so we need to be well prepared” said Roberto, the sub chief of Behau, as we arrived in the village and I began pulling ropes, buoys and poles out of the 4×4.
The sun was beating down as we were joined by several fishers to prepare the moorings for the new no-take zone and the temporary fishery closure for cuttlefish. After that we prepared a boat with a full engine, and four of the fishers volunteered to install the buoys when the time came.
We then visited the village to remind everyone that the formalisation was in five days, and to ask the “lia na’in” – the community’s traditional spiritual leader – whether he was available to lead part of the formalisation ceremony.
Finally, we sat down with Mariana, of the fisheries monitoring group, Aquilino, the community-appointed Tara Bandu coordinator, Firminio, the village chief, Fernando, the community policeman, and some of Behau’s fishers.
It was an informal and friendly discussion. By the end, everyone knew the agenda and roles for the formalisation and couldn’t wait to get started. Their excitement stayed with me as I turned my face back to Dili. The enthusiasm of the community for this Tara Bandu is infectious and hugely encouraging.
Finally, 12 December actually came. Birgit, Blue Ventures’ country manager, and I arrived in Behau to find a large gathering, including a representative from the Ministry of Fisheries, waiting for the formalisation to begin.
Looking into the eyes of some the community’s fishers, and the fisheries monitoring team, I could see their pride at finally having their own Tara Bandu. An official recognition of their commitment to managing their marine resources.
Roberto took the stage, and a hush descended on the excited crowd.
The reason we’ve worked for this Tara Bandu for such a long time, is because we’re catching less fish now than 25 years ago,” he began. “I have lived here for my entire life, and I can feel this happening.”
“When I was a child, I could see the fish playing around the shore. You did not have to sail more than 15m from the shore to catch a big fish. The situation has changed now, and we have to stay on our ocean for the whole night, more than a kilometre offshore, just to catch enough fish for two meals. We have to find a solution, and conserve our own resources for our children. If we don’t, I can’t imagine what the next 25 years will be like.”
Roberto continued by saying that this is the perfect time to be trialling marine protection, because there’s a road construction project going on in the area over the next couple of years. Many of Behau’s fishers will be temporarily changing their livelihood and working on the road during this time, so they will have less reliance on the ocean for their income.
Birgit spoke on behalf of Blue Ventures, committing our support to the Behau community for the long term.
This Tara Bandu is yours, your marine resources are yours. Blue Ventures is only here to facilitate your wishes. Our team will always be ready to provide technical support for the management, design and monitoring of your Tara Bandu, and to spread the word about it.”
The representative of the Ministry of Fisheries also spoke before Fernando delivered the final message about Tara Bandu security and enforcement. After that the Tara Bandu agreement was signed by all the community leaders and everyone walked down to the sea together.
The lia na’in started the traditional ceremony by marking all three entrances to the protected areas from the shore. With the help of his two assistants, he asked the spirits of the community’s ancestors to guard the area against illegal and destructive fishing. Traditional ceremonies like this are common in Timor-Leste, and happen at most communal events.
Once the lia na’in was finished, I thanked him and he explained to me that he was asking natural spirits for their help too. “The spirits of nature, like the spirits of our ancestors, live all around us. All I did was approach them, and ask them to work with us on making this Tara Bandu a success,” he told me.
The final part of the formalisation was the demarcation of the protected areas with buoys. Birgit accompanied the fishers with a GPS device and, despite some tricky currents, the buoys were successfully installed in just under two hours.
As I saw the boat heading back towards the shore, their mission complete, I couldn’t quite believe that the formalisation was over. Behau officially has a Tara Bandu now. The whole process has taken a long time, but that’s been right, because the community has been involved at every step. I’m unbelievably proud to have helped contribute to marine conservation in my country, and to have supported my fellow countrymen and women who rely on marine resources.
Read how the fisheries monitoring group is empowering women in Timor-Leste
Visit Timor-Leste as a marine conservation volunteer