Outside of Dili, the seat of power since the Portuguese set up shop there in the 17th century, the landscape is strikingly varied, scarred by poverty and military destruction. Timor’s climate is unique in the world, providing a buffer between tropical Indonesia and dry Australia. Seven degrees south of the equator, Timor is known for its severe dry season. Half of the year leaves coastal and high regions parched, in parts with red earth which reminds of the Australian outback.
Yet other regions remain a lush green color the whole year long. Its volcanic origin provides for stunning, at times fractal-like ranges. Due to varying altitude and rain-fall by region on the island, Timor sustains an astonishing variety of eco-systems from alpine meadows to rainforest, from pine forests to mangroves, all in an area the size of the state of New Jersey.
While its leaders trumpet the desire to become the next “Singapore” (which one can only suppose to mean orderly and prosperous), many hope that East Timor could become the Asian Costa Rica, a peaceful eco-paradise.
During two years of UN administration, over a dozen areas were declared “protected,” with penalties for damage to flora and fauna. Coral reefs are protected by regulation of the UN administration. These areas will become the first designated National Parks in East Timor.
Talk of National Parks and nature reserves may seem quite precocious in a country that is still technically administered by the U.N., in the throes of constitution writing. Unemployment and rural poverty are the greatest challenges facing the new government. In the past, both Portuguese and Indonesian colonial administrations were the greatest employers, providing the majority of jobs. This cannot be the case for an independent East Timor. Industry has no footing on the island, and reliance on exporting of volatile agriculture commodities has proven catastrophic in the past two years, with plummeting rice and coffee prices.
Tourism, in this context, looks like an appealing job-creator and revenue generator. Even now, the “captive” market of UN staff in the country has helped to energize the tourist sector in the short-term. More than a dozen western-style hotels have sprung from the ashes in Dili, and two SCUBA operators provide access to East Timor’s pristine reefs, mostly for ex-patriate staff. But both diving outfits are foreign-owned.
East Timor Transitional Administration Tourism Officer Vicente Ximenes has high expectations for tourism, and hopes to develop the sector in a well-planned, responsible way. First priority, he claims, is an assessment of what the country has to offer — to catalogue all of the sites of ecological, cultural and historical importance.
Ximenes hopes to avoid a Bali-syndrome, where development is extremely concentrated and unstructured. “We don’t want everything in the capitol, so we’ll try to start from the edges,” he says. But with only 6 staff, few resources can be devoted to educating people outside of the capitol about tourism or developing new projects.
“Hello Mrs! How are you?” screamed a pack of kids half way up Mount Matebian in the remote highlands of central East Timor. As “malay,” the universal Timorese label for foreigners, the children had spotted us immediately from the porch of a bamboo-walled, palm thatch-rooved hut. Even though the region we were traveling in speaks a local language and Tetum (the unofficial national language layered on top), these children, who would have to walk for an hour to see a foreigner, screamed to us in English. For a country so dramatically closed off from the world until the late 1990s, the penetration of English phrases into mountain vocabulary reflects the break-neck pace of change brought the near two-years old international presence.
Mount Matebian, hopes Dili-based entrepreneur and long-time guide Pedro Lebre, will be a “test-case” for eco- and cultural tourism. Located in central-eastern East Timor, access to Matebian from the capital is via a road which during the dry season is quite passable, offering stunning views of rice paddy terracing, tracing its way through a handful of traditional villages. In the wet season, the five hour ride from the capital to Baguia, the village at the base, will take up to 7 hours with experienced 4WD drivers, and will also require large portions of the road to be leveled and heightened.
Matebian, while not the tallest peak in Timor, is considered the most sacred. In pre-Portuguese times, the mountain stood at the center of the various island cultures’ cosmologies: a source from which souls emanated and inevitably returned at death. At the summit, a full 8000 feet above sea level, the Catholic church has piggy-backed on ancient tradition, erecting a shrine named Cristo Rei, or Christ the King. On October 10, the annual day of pilgrimage, people from across the country and across the world make the trek, with the international dimension only growing during the current UN administration.
Lebre hopes to include stories of Matebian’s recent history in his tours. In 1975, shortly after the completion of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, two Indonesian soldiers “disappeared” on the mountain, provoking a whole battalion to come looking for them. The battalion was summarily destroyed by the highly effective guerilla force FALINTIL, in one of its early and most heroic battles. From 1975, until Indonesia bought fighter planes in the late 1970s, Matebian became a refuge for nearly all of the population of the eastern most three districts who gathered in its valleys and caves. For most families, this was a desperate move: there was not enough food, water and no medicine. Lebre’s village was “depopulated,” those people who did not remain in the mountains were sent to central prison camps.
Jakarta’s acquisition of fighter planes from England and the United States brought untold destruction to East Timor’s most sacred mountain. Whole swaths of forest, considered cover for the hiding civilian population were bombed and napalmed, leaving many meadows unnaturally exposed to erosion. The Indonesian army began a devastating bombing campaign, in which over 10,000 people huddled in one of Matebian’s caves perished under a hail of napalm. The cave was subsequently sealed. Lebre hopes to create a monument to those who died there, including many of his family members.
Matebian holds a special place in the heart of FALINTIL guerilla fighters, many of whom came from the surrounding districts, and fought their fiercest battles there. The region is so FALINTIL-friendly that during Indonesia’s terror campaign in 1999 surrounding the vote for independence, Indonesia sympathizers and militiamen were to frightened to operate in the area. They were told they would be murdered immediately by FALINTIL for any misbehavior. Unlike other towns in East Timor where up to 90% of infrastructure was destroyed by militias and the Indonesian army, Baguia has only two burned buildings.
Legendary FALINTIL Commander Matan Ruak, from a village visible from the mountain, plans to rebuild an impressive “uma adat,” or traditional house, in the shadows of the peak. Many demobilized guerillas are attempting to return to civilian life in the areas surrounding the mountain. Lebre and others have proposed a plan which would employ them as guides or rangers for the mountain, as respected caretakers for the land.