Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: KY: UN setting bad precedent in E. Timor : environmentalists

U.N. setting bad precedent in E. Timor : environmentalists.


DILI, East Timor, June 16 Kyodo

The U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) is sending a wrong message to the devastated territory by failing to allocate funds for environmental protection in its new budget, according to local environmentalists.

"UNTAET doesn't seem to care much about the environment," eco-tourism specialist and environmental advocate Vicente Ximenes said regarding UNTAET's $59 million budget to be submitted to an international donors' conference in Lisbon next Wednesday for approval.

"It's very sad and disappointing," said Ximenes, who handles environmental affairs and tourism at the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), East Timor's main pro-independence umbrella political grouping.

"If they only want to speed up reconstruction, I'm afraid it will have a very negative impact on the environment," he said.

Ximenes' views were echoed by Demetrio Amaral, executive director of Haburas, an East Timorese nongovernmental organization dealing with environmental issues, who said, "Zero budget for the environment is a wrong decision. It sets a bad precedent for East Timor. It also doesn't reflect the real situation now in East Timor, where we now face pollution and other environmental problems."

The two environmentalists expressed concern UNTAET's five-member environmental protection unit (EPU) may be disbanded under a new administrative structure to be introduced July 1 after donors endorse the budget.

In the draft budget, covering the fiscal year starting July, priority is given to health, education, infrastructure and agriculture. To the dismay of environmentalists, it was also approved by the CNRT despite their lobbying activities.

"It has been a very difficult exercise in which the Timorese have been fully involved. In fact, it is they who presented the final proposal, a very courageous proposal," UNTAET chief Sergio Vieira de Mello told reporters last Monday in presenting the budget.

"This will be an austere budget, a budget that will demonstrate to donors in Lisbon that we are serious, that the East Timorese leadership is serious, and that we are not intending to rely indefinitely on external budget support to East Timor," de Mello said.

Amaral lamented, however, that because East Timor faces the immense challenge of rebuilding from ashes, "there is an overwhelming danger that in national development plans, protection of the environment will be accorded least priority."

Indeed, environmental problems are already becoming increasingly evident, with questionable waste disposal practices by overseas contractors receiving scant attention, unregulated vendors springing up all over Dili and dumping waste plastic packets and garbage into the sea becoming common.

Large chunks of rare coral are being openly sold from roadside stalls to U.N. staff and soldiers, while the high prices of fuel and kerosene have led to intensified destruction of forests and mangroves for firewood.

Problems inherited from the pre-UNTAET period include large-scale logging, shifting cultivation, use of chemical fertilizers and the Indonesian military's deliberate deforestation to deny cover to Falintil pro-independence guerrillas.

Amaral said only a small amount of funding is needed to help start programs to educate the East Timorese about the importance of protecting their environment, strengthen environmental advocacy and promote reforestation.

De Mello said that while he personally attaches "great importance" to the environment, the sheer scope of East Timor 's requirements after the militia-perpetrated devastation that followed the Aug. 30 independence vote means, "We have to prioritize."

"If I have to choose between sale of coral and registering all the vehicles that go around East Timor without number plates, without any known owner, I would opt for the latter," he said.

While the top administrator said EPU would "in all likelihood remain" in UNTAET's new structure, both Ximenes and Amaral expressed serious doubts.

Ximenes warned that if the unit is disbanded and its staff absorbed by other sections, the environmental watchdog role in UNTAET will disappear altogether.

"If you leave something for everyone concerned, at the end nobody is concerned. We need an EPU as a watchdog for all parts of the government. We need to start protecting the environment now," he said.

Amaral urged donor nations "to pressure UNTAET and the CNRT not to remove the EPU under the new structure, and to show their concern about environment through action and not just rhetoric."

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