The rainy season in Timor-Leste has not quite started yet, so our journey to the village of Behau, some 40 km east of Dili, was a hot and humid affair. We were visiting the Behau community for a moment that has been over a year in the making: the formalisation of their Tara Bandu – a customary law that they have used to establish a locally managed marine area.
I’ll leave my friend and colleague Ollie to tell you about the formalisation [blog coming soon!], and instead tell you about the steps on the road to this incredible community-led conservation milestone.
The Behau community have implemented Tara Bandu in the past, forbidding fishing in a very productive section of the reef through a combination of sacred rituals and formal legislation. That was over 40 years ago however, as many traditional institutions broke down as Timor-Leste struggled for independence. Tara Bandu lost its power in the country for many years, but the positive effects that Behau’s Tara Bandu had on fish stocks are still remembered in the stories of fishers.
We first met Firminio, Behau’s chief, in October 2017. I remember it well, a young, tattooed man, with a cigarette tucked behind his ear, passionately telling us that his community had a real need for sustainable marine resource management. After positive discussions on the potential of Tara Bandu with Firminio and other leaders in the Behau community, it was decided to bring the discussion to Behau’s fishers in broader consultations.
These consultations were held in the outdoor space of the village administration office. Everybody would sit in a large circle as the dust from the seemingly never-ending road works filled the air, and a series of lively debates took place on the pros and cons of marine management.
Every fisher we talk to tells us the same story of declining stocks, environmental damage, and concerns over food security.
“We are not catching enough fish anymore,” one fisher says, at a particularly spirited consultation, drawing noises of assent from the rest of the gathering. Coastal communities in Timor-Leste are very aware that something is going wrong with their fisheries, and every fisher we talk to tells us the same story of declining stocks, environmental damage, and concerns over food security. However, not everybody agrees on what to do to fix this.
“If we close the reef, where is my husband going to go to get our food?” rebukes a woman, tension sharpening her movements as she speaks. Tara Bandu has often been used to create full no-take zones, so she is understandably concerned about her family’s livelihood and food security.
It takes some effort but, with the help of Firminio and the community leaders, we slowly start building trust in the fact that this is their project and that they, for once, are fully in charge.
Timorese coastal communities, like many others across the tropics, have a long history of being deprived of their rights. They are used to foreigners barging in to impose their views and systems. It takes some effort but, with the help of Firminio and the community leaders, we slowly start building trust in the fact that this is their project and that they, for once, are fully in charge.
“There are other ways to use Tara Bandu besides no-take zones,” I explain. “You could simply ban destructive gears, only protect certain fisheries, use temporary closures, or limit the size of a no-take zone if you decide to implement one. It’s entirely your decision – these are your resources. We are just here to help you achieve what you decide to do.”
This blows the consultation wide open, and suddenly everyone is discussing technicalities.
“So we could still sail through the protected area? What about gleaning for octopus?”
“We catch a lot of cuttlefish. How do we make sure we don’t run out?”
“I heard that on Atauro Island they make tourists pay to enter the protected area. Could we do that too?”
These technicalities were finalised over a year of community meetings. Blue Ventures was asked to attend some of these meetings to provide technical support, and we stayed in close communication with Firminio and the other local authorities throughout the process.
When all was said and done, the Behau community decided to extend full protection to the reef that was formerly covered by Tara Bandu many years ago. People can still sail on the reef, but fishing, gleaning and anchoring is forbidden. They have also decided to test a separate temporary fishery closure to see if they can improve the yield of their cuttlefish fishery.
Blue Ventures supported the implementation of these decisions by taking GPS coordinates, with Firminio and some of Behau’s fishers, of the two new areas – marked on land by clear features, such as the local church or a lonely mangrove tree – before heading back to our office in Dili to draft the official regulations and draw maps.
After that, there was still some vital work that needed to be done. Although we had strived to include as many people as possible in the community consultations, it was inevitable that not everyone had participated. It’s absolutely critical to make sure that the wider community is happy to test out the regulations, or they’ll never be successful.
For weeks we went door to door, leaving a simple breakdown of the new regulations and holding informal meetings with fishers on the beach. We would explain to anyone who wasn’t already aware that these measures were being proposed by community representatives, and we would ask for their opinions on them.
Some of the fishers we spoke to were worried about certain specifics and how they would affect their livelihood, and were pleased for the opportunity to discuss their ideas and concerns. The informal setting of these discussions promoted openness, as well as trust in the process, and by the end of our conversations every fisher we talked to told us that they were happy to support the Tara Bandu, and that they thought it would address their problems with declining catches.
So that takes us to December 7 2018, when the Tara Bandu was formalised. You can read more about this in part 2, written by my friend and colleague Ollie:
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Read a day-in-the-life of a marine conservation volunteer in Timor-Leste