What Timor Is Teaching Me About Conservation

Living in Timor has opened my eyes quite a lot to the issue of conservation. Like Gianna talked about in her last post, many of the problems we find in the environment are caused by humans messing things up in the first place. We have entire industries piggyback riding on the notion of becoming green and eco-friendly, because we have caused plenty of damage, and now we have to fix it.

When I first came to this country, I imagined living in a village with pristine natural beauty. I did not imagine the piles of trash in front lawns or that throwing plastic bags and bottles out of the window of a moving car would be a daily experience. But, as it happens, most developing countries are like this, which sucks for development and people everywhere. Now, being that my degree is in sociology, I have a tendency of desperately trying to find the chain of reasoning or events that have led to a social issue or social strength. Let me briefly walk through the chain I have compiled over the last 10 months of living here.


Massive trash burnings at the landfill near Dili cause the fog on the mountain near my home.


For starters, Timor is an island, and when it comes to humans inhabiting an island, other land animals end up pushed out and in a way made extinct. This isn’t because of technology or westernization. It was happening before the industrial revolution and certainly continues to happen after. Humans tend to gravitate to the top of the food chain through the use of tools to assist in hunting and building our habitats. We also procreate, and on an island with limited room, the more humans there are, the less of other animals there are. However, the water-based wildlife thrives, as humans haven’t developed into vast communities of mermaids that inhabit the oceans and other bodies of water. Timor has the best scuba diving in the world and is one of the last places where coral will eventually die.

Fast forward a bit, and you have the vast global trading network. This is great in general—it is how European countries are able to have bananas, mangos, and other fruit to keep away things like scurvy. Global trade is also how Timor has enough eggs to provide invaluable nutrition to subsistence farming communities. However, this global trade goes sour when there are no waste management systems and lacking regulation of chemicals. Timor has a small bargaining chip and this ends up with importing a lot of the rejected products from Indonesia, China, and other nearby countries. We get the cheap and free stuff. We also have tons of packaged goods—biscuits and crackers and candies and instant noodles. Not only is this a conservation problem, but an economic one, too. Timor has become highly reliant on imports, so much so that it makes developing their own economy nearly impossible (look at how countries like Haiti are doing—too much aid and imports destroys local economies).


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The roadside on my commute to the capital–it is common practice to toss trash out of the windows of moving vehicles.


Timor lacks many systems, including that of waste management. This isn’t helped by the fact that there are so many imports where small wrappings and plastic make for littering later. Currently, there is one landfill near the city, but it is overflowing, and trash is rid of via burning. I can’t tell you how many fumes I’ve inhaled, but they certainly smell bad. There is some recycling, but it is limited to city limits and hardly existent, or at least not advertised. On top of all that, there is no education on the effects of trash on the environment. Even if there was, that is the last thing on anyone’s mind when it is hard enough to make it through the day here.

Fast forward to this weekend, when visiting a sacred island called Jaco way out on the eastern tip of the island of Timor. No one is allowed to build on the island or alter it in any way. Locals will take people across the way during the day to visit, but you can’t make fires, camp out at night, leave trash, or anything. It was the Timor I had imagined before coming to this country and it was absolutely beautiful. The area is used as an adventure tourist attraction to support the locals, it promotes conservation in Timor with a couple of eco-tourism spots available for accommodations.


The untouched and sacred islad of Jaco now under national park protection.


Besides being incredibly peaceful, and nearly zero light pollution that made the night sky breathtaking, it made me think a lot about how we might approach conservation. Do we really have to separate humans from nature? That is certainly the case for Jaco. Are we a species that uses up resources unthinkingly, creating problems for others? Yes, but that was true before and after modernization. So what is the deal? Do we just keep on going the way we are going, because it doesn’t matter what we do, or try to save the environment to bring some balance back into our lives?

Going to this far corner of Timor, the natural and untouched corner I always thought lesser developed countries were made of made me think twice about how to approach this issue of conservation. We are torn between making human lives better through modernization and global trade that builds economies and improves healthcare and supporting other species and untouched habitats. The US national park approach is certainly that of keeping humans and nature separate. But how are we to know the value our environment has if there is a wall between us, and it?

Let me know your thoughts below,


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