East Timor: the opportunity for a sustainable future

Down to Earth No. 42, August 1999

East Timor's forests and agricultural lands have suffered extensive damage during the Indonesian occupation. Restoring the environment and setting the country on a development path that is economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable will be one of the many formidable challenges facing the government of an independent East Timor.

In the past months, international attention has focussed on the vote, planned this August, which will decide East Timor's future political status. In the run-up to the vote, life has become more precarious for much of East Timor's population. The Indonesian army and the pro-Indonesia militias they support are waging a bloody campaign of terror against anyone known to be in favour of independence as they attempt to destabilise the self-determination process, make a free and fair vote impossible and prevent East Timor becoming an independent nation. Food shortages are severe as farmers are prevented from tending their crops and malnutrition is on the increase. Diseases like tuberculosis and malaria are spreading too, in a country deprived of adequate medical supplied and doctors.

These are the most immediate and important issues facing the people of East Timor and it is only right that national and international attention is focussed upon the political agenda of self-determination. At the same time, the likelihood of East Timor becoming independent is greater than ever and the need to formulate development strategies for the future has never been more pressing.

In this article we focus on the legacy of Indonesian occupation in East Timor's natural resources and raw materials with which an independent East Timor must build its future.


State of the environment

What state will the country of East Timor be in, when the Indonesian administration finally quits? There is scant information available on the environment in East Timor, mostly because the Indonesian regime has hardly allowed any independent research. What is clear, however, is that the twenty-four years of Indonesian control have done great damage to many of East Timor's natural resources. In the period following the invasion, large areas of forest were burned to deny refuge to the Timorese resistance. Chemical defoliants were used. Small and medium sized family-owned coffee plantations were also destroyed. Indonesian companies, controlled by the Suharto family clique or the military elite, were given exclusive trade rights over profitable resources including coffee, marble and sandalwood. They carried on their activities with no regard to the rights of the original Timorese owners or the environmental impact.

By the mid-1990s the combined effects of military campaigns, population policies (see below) and commercial exploitation were all too evident. One source says that only 10% of the land was thought to be suitable for agriculture. According to another set of figures, 78% of the total land mass was classified as critical and deforestation had reduced East Timor's forest cover to an estimated 15% of the land area - less than half the estimate for the previous decade. In the mid-1980s, when the UK-funded RePPProT project was compiling land use maps for the Transmigration Ministry, the forest coverage was put at 37%, with brush and scrub a further 26% of a total land area of 14,878 square kilometres. Yet, for all their spending on infrastructure and prestige projects in the 1980s and 1990s, the Indonesian administration failed to address these fundamental problems or even to conduct adequate studies to assess the damage. The danger now, is that resource extraction will be accelerated as Indonesian companies rush to maximise profits in the little time they have left before East Timor becomes independent. It can also be assumed that these companies - especially those with close connections to the military - support the pro-Indonesia forces' efforts to delay the vote and buy time for further last-minute plunder.


The impact of mass resettlement

Indonesia's population policies, involving forcible mass resettlement programmes, have been aimed at territorial and political control in East Timor. They have claimed tens of thousands of lives and have had an enormous impact on agricultural land and forests.

As part of Indonesian efforts to eliminate the FALINTIL resistance following Indonesia's 1975 invasion, whole villages were uprooted from fertile inland areas, herded into transit camps and then literally imprisoned in new settlements on the less fertile northern coastal plain. By the late seventies, the resettlement programme had affected over 300,000 people, about half of the total pre-invasion population of East Timor. Initially, conditions in these settlements were more akin to prison work camps than normal villages. The resettled Timorese, denied access to adequate farmland, were expected to scratch out an existence close to the sites in fragile, marginal areas. But the land was unable to sustain intensive farming or high population densities and mass starvation was the result. The famine is believed to have pushed the death toll of Indonesia's war against East Timor up to around 200,000, or one third of the population. The land itself near the resettlement areas was overworked and the soils quickly exhausted.

The resettled Timorese villagers who survived could not return to their farms. Instead, farmers from Indonesia were given their land under the state-sponsored transmigration programme. Starting in 1982, the transmigration programme brought 25,000 farmers from Java and Bali to East Timor. Indonesians poured into East Timor's towns too. In the 1980s and 1990s urban populations were swelled by Indonesians attracted by opportunities in the bureaucracy and street commerce. Altogether more than 200,000 Indonesians have settled in East Timor, not including the 20,000 soldiers accompanied by their families. According to Timorese researcher Rui Gomes, in the capital, Dili, population growth was so rapid that the density in 1998 was more than 8,000 people per square kilometre - higher than 1990 levels in Singapore or Hong Kong. This population growth has put pressure on water resources both in terms of supply depletion and pollution.

Land around the towns has been under pressure too. Poor families living in the densely populated northern plain have had no choice but to practise unsustainable forms of slash and burn farming. The treeless mountains surrounding Dili already form a critical area of around 15,000 hectares.

The Indonesian administration allowed no room for development from the grass-roots, preferring, colonial-style, to import what they considered to be "superior" methods based on Javanese agriculture into East Timor. This was despite the fact that the soils and climate or East Timor - and some other eastern islands in Indonesia - are very different from Java, conditions being much drier. According to Gomes, this attitude was evident down through the bureaucracy and frequently voiced by non-Timorese officials in front of their Timorese colleagues:

Javanese people declare themselves as superior and essential to East Timor's overall Pembangunan or economic development. For example the heads of government departments as well as higher echelons, who are mostly Javanese, often pronounce that with the present inhabitants, East Timor has no chance to progress. The officials claim that the Javanese work ethic is excellent particularly in their agricultural methods, therefore they should be imitated by the Timorese.

These attitudes are displayed by government officials in Indonesia too, where Javanese agricultural methods are held up as an example to be followed by indigenous peoples practising traditional methods. In East Timor many of the villages practising traditional farming methods, which have evolved according to local conditions, were wiped out by the war. There is an urgent need to research and evaluate traditional farming methods as these may well prove the best basis for revitalising agriculture in the country.

(Source: The Environmental Impact of Indonesia's Occupation of East Timor, Rui A. Gomes, April 1999. See also J.G. Taylor, Indonesia's Forgotten War, The Hidden History of East Timor, Zed Books 1991)

The viability argument

In the past, the argument that East Timor would not be economically viable was used by Jakarta to justify its continued occupation of the territory. The logic was that East Timor was both poor in natural resources and lacked the adequate human resources to succeed alone.

What the apologists for the occupation failed to mention was that Indonesia was to a large extent responsible for resource poverty, having systematically destroyed the forest cover, presided over the plundering of other resources by Indonesian companies and engineered a humanitarian and ecological disaster in their resettlement programmes.

Ironically, the 'resource poor' argument has also been used by Jakarta to argue for an Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor. In February this year the president bemoaned the fact that Jakarta had spent so much on East Timor, but had gained "nothing but rocks". "What did they give us? Natural resources? No. Human resources? No. Technology? No. Abundant gold? No. Rocks? Yes!", he said.

This once again denies the fact that large profits were made from East Timor's resources by Indonesian companies. The extent of these business interests has been researched by dissident academic George Aditjondro. In direct contradiction to Habibie, he argues that profiting from East Timor is the main reason why powerful interests, including the former president and the military, are reluctant to relinquish the territory. Aditjondro states that the current fighting in East Timor "cannot be fully understood without taking into account the substantial holdings in the province of the former Indonesian president Soeharto and his family."

Lands controlled by the Suharto clique amount to 564,867 hectares from the western border to the eastern tip of the country. They include 40,000 hectares of timber plantations allotted to chief crony Bob Hasan and tens of thousands of sugarcane plantations on the southern coast, controlled by the Suharto children. Suharto's eldest daughter Tutut still owns the best marble deposits in Timor, at Manatuto. The family also controls the three onshore oil wells in East Timor, and is preparing to enter the Timor Gap oil scene by establishing a company in Perth - PT Genindo Western Petroleum Propriety Ltd. - as well as co-owning a company involved in building base camps for the oil companies in Timor. These interests are closely linked to those of the military backed conglomerate PT Batara Indra, which controls the remaining sandalwood stands and the production and export of sandalwood oil. According to a January report, the military, along with local Chinese businessmen, was still exporting between 10 and 20 tonnes of sandalwood from Fatalulik district every month. The clique's interests extend to the towns too: most of the hotels and the only cinema in Dili are owned by Batara Indra, according to Aditjondro. There are close business links too between families of the pro-Indonesian elite, like Governor Abilio Soares, the Suharto clique, and the military.

This evidence of commercial gain undermines the argument that East Timor has little going for it economically. Indeed, in one area, where the Indonesian-controlled monopoly has been lifted there appear to have been substantial gains for the Timorese. Another military backed company, PT Denok, controlled coffee production and export for many years. Its monopoly was ended in 1995 after pressure from United States. According to a report in The Far Eastern Economic Review, the boost in coffee income since then has "pulled thousands of East Timorese above the poverty line" and could become an important source of revenue for an independent East Timor. (Straits Times 25/2/99; Sydney Morning Herald, 8/5/99; Far Eastern Economic Review 18/2/99)


The Timor Gap

The 'resource poverty' argument also conveniently forgets about the Timor Gap - the stretch of ocean between Timor and Australia beneath which lies rich reserves of oil and natural gas. The Timor Gap Treaty was signed by Indonesia and Australia in 1989 to allow exploitation (and revenue-sharing) to start. The Treaty was decried internationally as contravening international law, because Indonesia's annexation of East Timor had not been recognised by the United Nations.

Until recently, the Australian government accepted Indonesia's annexation of East Timor, thereby denying the need for renegotiation of the Timor Gap Treaty. Now, after a policy U-turn, Canberra supports East Timor's right to self-determination and has said it would work with an independent East Timor to keep the Treaty in operation. The Australian oil industry has also shifted to protect its interests and has said it will work constructively with whatever solution emerges from the August vote. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association has called on Australia to provide substantial help to East Timor if it chooses independence so that clear and transparent investment rules, a clear taxation system and dispute settlement systems can be set up.

For the past year it has been widely recognised that the Gap contains rich reserves of gas as well as oil. The major operating company in the Gap is now Phillips Petroleum Co. of the US, which bought BHP's controlling stake in the Elang/Kakatua field. In August last year, this project was the first of the Gap's oil fields to start commercial production, earning $2.5 million each to Indonesia and Australia. Other companies involved in different projects include the Royal Dutch/Shell Group (Netherlands/UK) and Woodside Petroleum (Australia) and more recently, Mobil Oil - the company whose activities have been linked to human rights abuses in Aceh.

The indications are that an independent East Timor will want to earn revenues from the Timor Gap's oil and gas. But these industries and the companies who dominate them have caused environmental pollution and human rights abuses around the globe. A future independent government would do well to take the hidden costs of oil and gas revenues into account when deciding on its Timor Gap strategy. (Dow Jones 21/6/99; G. Aditjondro in Sydney Morning Herald, 8/5/99)


CNRT strategy

In April this year, the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) held a Strategic Development Planning conference in Melbourne, Australia. The conference was the second phase in the CNRT's preparations for independent government and the 'blueprint' prepared is based on "the fundamental principle of a free, independent, peaceful and democratic East Timor." The conference developed strategic plans for development in 8 key areas including agriculture, economics and infrastructure/environment.

It is clear that revenues from the Timor Gap will be an important source of income for an independent government - although the CNRT is also looking at non-fossil fuel energy strategies for domestic needs. In addition to agricultural exports and remittances from East Timorese living abroad, eco-tourism is being considered as an important income-generator. DTE hopes to publish more on the plans of the CNRT in a future issue. (Sources: Publico [translation]4/5/99;)


Real aid

What East Timor may also require in the initial stages of independence is financial support from richer countries. If a future East Timorese government does request financial assistance from northern governments, borrower and creditors alike should ensure that East Timor does not fall into the trap of long-term debt-dependency afflicting so many countries in the South. Instead it would be an opportunity to develop an aid programme that truly helps set East Timor on the path to an environmentally sustainable economy. Such a programme should aim to avoid the obsolete and inequitable development strategies, followed by the Suharto regime in Indonesia, which promote plundering the country's natural resources to launch the business careers of the elite, at the expense of the rest of the population and future generations. It would also be a chance for those northern governments which supplied the Indonesian military with arms used against East Timor's people to go some way to saying sorry for the past.