by Molly Timmers
After three days of travel across space and time, we arrived in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. This country is located about an hour’s flight northwest from Darwin, Australia across the Timor Sea. It shares its border with Indonesia, which occupies the western half of the island of Timor. Unbeknownst to most, Timor-Leste only just recently became a sovereign nation after years of struggle and resistance to an Indonesian occupation. Having gained its independence in 2002, this country is one of the newest countries in the world. It is also one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world for coral reefs.
Timor-Leste resides within the Coral Triangle, a region known as the center of marine biodiversity. As a result of its geographical location between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and its geological history, the Coral Triangle has the highest coral and fish diversity in the world. It hosts 76% (605) of the world’s coral species (798) and 37% (2228) of known coral reef fish species (6000). This incredibly diverse region includes Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and of course, Timor-Leste.
As a new country, Timor-Leste began working toward developing management strategies to protect and conserve their coral reefs and the animals that live within. However, they found it challenging to proceed because scientific information about their nearshore coastal resources was limited. Thus, in 2011, the Government of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) requested assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and NOAA to support them in addressing the following 5 questions:
- Where are Timor-Leste’s nearshore marine resources?
- What are Timor-Leste’s nearshore resources?
- How are coastal resources changing over time?
- What are the threats causing those changes?
- What approaches are needed to help manage and conserve nearshore resources over the long-term?
As a result, USAID requested the assistance of NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. With over 15 years of experience mapping and monitoring the coral reef ecosystems and their associated threats across U.S. Pacific coral reefs, CREP agreed to assist Timor-Leste in their efforts to address these questions by conducting baseline surveys over the period 2012 to 2016 under the partnership agreement between MAF, USAID, and NOAA. Last month, we returned to Timor-Leste to conclude this partnership by delivering the Final Report to our Timor-Leste partners and working with them on how to utilize the collected data to inform ecosystem-based coastal resource management planning in Timor-Leste.
On the 26th of June, we presented the Final Report produced by our program in an all-day workshop event and provided a separate training on how to use the data in a geospatial format (aka, mapping software) the following day. The all-day workshop was held at MAF’s new conference center. Over 70 people from 19 agencies attended, including: Estanislau Aleixo da Silva, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries; Ms. Karen Stanton, the U.S. Ambassador to Timor-Leste; and Jose Ramos-Horta, a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and one of Timor-Leste’s former presidents who signed the agreement for Timor-Leste to become one of the six Coral Triangle Initiative countries. The U.S. Embassy graciously provided their interpreter who translated in real-time between Tetun (the locale Timorese language) and English through wireless ear bud systems that enabled us to seamlessly share our presentations and effectively engage our audience in question and answer sessions.
Ambassador Stanton opened the workshop and Minister da Silva followed with his opening remarks. To symbolize the closure of this 5-year partnership, we presented copies of the Final Report and detailed scientific maps to Ambassador Stanton who then proceeded to hand them to the Minister. Once the symbolic hand-off was complete, the workshop commenced.
We started with a series of presentations on the project background and key findings. This was followed by a nearly two-hour question and answer session and a delicious late lunch due to the high-level of engagement by the participants. After lunch, more detailed presentations ensued. We framed our presentations around MAF’s 5 original questions and shared in more detail the work that we did to try and answer their questions. To make this information as accessible as possible, the report and data are freely available and hosted online at NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System. Once we finished with all we had to share, we had another question and answer session followed by closing remarks made by Diana Putman, the USAID Timor-Leste Mission Director, and Acacio Guterres, Director General for Fisheries (MAF).
The following day we conducted a hands-on training for MAF employees on how to use the data we produced for MAF. They learned how to access and convert the survey data so it could be displayed in mapping software with other spatial data, and how they could “ask questions” of the data using the mapping tools. Participants learned how to work with data in new ways that they previously didn’t know were possible.
For our final day, we spent the afternoon meeting with our partners answering last minute questions; this officially brought an end to our partnership. It is with such sweet sorrow that we see this project come to an end. Many of us at CREP have spent time in Timor-Leste over the past five years helping with this project and found Timor-Leste to be a home away from home. The Timorese are a gracious, kind, and motivated people. They want to protect and conserve their coral reefs and hopefully in time, they will have the capacity themselves to establish their own long-term monitoring program just as we did 15 years ago here in the U.S. Pacific Islands. We hope the work that we’ve done and the time we’ve invested will get them started down the path towards our mutual goal to protect and conserve coral reefs ecosystems.