By Christina Saylor, Timor-Leste volunteer, May 2017
It is Sunday in the village of Biqueli on Ataúro, a small island in Timor-Leste. Fishing nets hang above wooden boats in the tropical midday sun as the community enjoys a day set aside for prayer and time with family and friends. Jemima Gomes, who was born in Biqueli, walks along the beach, chatting with visitors who have come to Ataúro for an expedition with Blue Ventures.
As a teenager, Jemima spent her days helping her father pull nets full of fish from the teeming seas around Ataúro. Today, at age 23, she still spends her days in the sea, but in a different way—one that reflects the changing times for the island. Jemima is Ataúro’s first female scuba diver, and she is on the path to becoming Timor-Leste’s first female Dive Master. She is also a Dive and Science Assistant with Blue Ventures.
Jemima will tell you that working with Blue Ventures changed her life and inspired her to speak up about the need for marine conservation on Ataúro. Her voice and the voices of others like her are invaluable because it is only through community action that conservation efforts on Ataúro can succeed.
Ataúro: a biodiversity hotspot on the cusp of change
As Asia’s youngest country, Timor-Leste faces the challenges of a developing nation with limited resources. While environmental protection and stability are embedded in Timorese culture, immediate conservation needs require support from international partners. Blue Ventures is working in Timor-Leste with a collaborative, community-first approach to support the identification and implementation of conservation solutions. This includes collecting data to inform policies, engaging communities, and partnering with local and national decision-makers as well as other NGOs.
Situated in Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste is in the Coral Triangle, an area that is home to more than three-quarters of known coral species and nearly 40 percent of known coral reef fish species.
Even within the Coral Triangle, Ataúro is impressive. The island made headlines in 2016 when a study conducted by the NGO Conservation International found an astonishing diversity of fish in its surrounding reefs. Yet, little other data have been collected about these habitats.
Biqueli is one of several villages on Ataúro with a long fishing heritage. For generations, the sea provided enough for fishermen like Jemima’s father to feed their families and make a living by selling part of their catch at local markets. But this way of life is now threatened as over-fishing, globalisation, and climate change increase demands on marine resources and impact the health of vital habitats. People on Ataúro have noticed there are fewer fish, a clear sign it’s time to build capacity for marine management.
There is also growing recognition that Ataúro’s rich seascapes could make it a popular ecotourist destination, and communities are exploring ways to sustainably welcome more visitors.
Conservation efforts are focused on mapping and monitoring habitats, establishing protected areas, and developing alternative livelihoods to relieve pressure on marine resources and restore fish populations. Jemima is contributing to these efforts by assisting Blue Ventures in data collection, working with volunteers, and helping to engage other community members.
A new relationship with the sea
The official languages in Timor-Leste are Tetun and Portuguese, and working languages include Bahasa Indonesia and English. When Jemima was 18, she attended an NGO-led English school called SOLS (Signs of Life School) in Beloi village. Jemima, who is bright and curious, wanted to learn English for two reasons: to broaden her job opportunities and to talk with visitors from other parts of the world about their lives and cultures.
“Like many people from Ataúro, I have been going to the sea since I began walking. Scuba diving and learning to identify fish, coral and other species was a wonderful new experience. It’s important that our communities know about the marine habitats around Ataúro and understand the importance of conservation, so we can better protect our marine resources for the future”
Blue Ventures Dive and Science Assistant
Like many young Timorese women, Jemima returned home after school to help with household duties. Then in 2015, she had an opportunity to work on the MV Ataúro, a small ferry carrying tourists between Dili and Ataúro, where she helped passengers, gave safety briefings in English, and assisted the captain. The job was tough, but Jemima thought, “If I work hard, good things will come.”
A year later, Jemima applied to and was accepted by Blue Ventures as one of two Dive and Science Assistants. Her training began with an open-water scuba certification and education on marine ecology and species identification. Jemima remembers it was difficult learning to use scuba equipment, and she felt her English still needed improvement. Yet, instead of seeing her limitations, she said Blue Ventures helped her develop her skills.
When Jemima became an adept and passionate diver, Blue Ventures encouraged her to apply for a PADI scholarship to pursue a professional Dive Master certification. She was delighted to receive the scholarship earlier this year and is now working closely with Blue Ventures’ Dive Manager Laura McGuire. In addition to overseeing the standard theory studies and practical work, Laura regularly trains with Jemima to help her build the strength and endurance she’ll need for this highly physical job.
A community engaged
When she is not diving, Jemima is often talking to others about her work with Blue Ventures. On Sundays, her day off, she stays in Biqueli. It is the type of village where you can arrive and ask anyone in Tetun, “Jemima, ne bee?” (Where is Jemima?). On this Sunday, Jemima was at her sister’s house “behind the church,” where she and her family warmly greeted the volunteers.
After the morning church service, everyone enjoyed a vegetarian lunch with local papaya flower, cassava leaf, pumpkin, tomatoes and chilies. Conversations were about life in Biqueli. Jemima explained she will be asked to speak before the congregation about her journey and future when she completes her certification.
This will not be her first time speaking publicly about scuba diving and conservation. She has presented to community leaders, and she regularly talks to friends, neighbours and others about what she is learning and how they can take part.
Later that day, for example, when Jemima and the volunteers were sitting with her friends and sipping fresh coconuts, Jemima told her friends not to forget about the upcoming seagrass survey. Because of Jemima, these women participate in Blue Venture’s community-based monitoring programme, which employs community members to collect data on the island’s fragile seagrass habitats.
A role model for young women
Jemima is doing more than taking on a new personal path; she is helping break the mould of women’s roles in Timor-Leste. Although things are starting to change for Timorese women, they have not traditionally been seen as leaders outside of the home.
On a recent afternoon at the English school in Beloi, a Blue Ventures volunteer asked a young student what she would like to do after the programme. The student said, “I want to be successful like Jemima.” When Jemima hears this, she smiles broadly and giggles. Given the opportunity, Jemima thinks many more people on Ataúro—both women and men—will embrace the chance to scuba dive and become advocates for protecting the ocean.
Special thanks to Blue Ventures volunteer Christina Saylor for writing this blog and providing the majority of the photos.
Blue Ventures would like to thank our supporters and funders including the Darwin Initiative through UK Government funding, the GEF through UNEP under the Dugong and Seagrass Project, and Wilstar.