Subject: AFR: E. Timor's poverty gap can be closed 

Australian Financial review April 20, 2004


Timor's poverty gap can be closed

Julie Macken

East Timor's founding father, Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, will be awarded the prestigious US Goldman environmental prize today in San Francisco.

The prize, valued at $US125,000 ($167,000), recognises his willingness to tackle the environmental devastation brought about by 25 years of Indonesian occupation of what is now one of the world's smallest states.

But it is not just de Carvalho's ability to organise and educate his countrymen about the need to develop East Timor using principles of sustainable development that gained the world's attention.

It is also his capacity to look at a ruined nation and see among the ashes the potential to learn from the mistakes of others.

In 1998, while still under Indonesian occupation, de Carvalho founded the Haburas (meaning "to make green and fresh" in Tetum) Foundation.

He is largely credited with spearheading the inclusion of four key articles in East Timor's constitution: the right to a healthy environment; respect for traditional customary law; prioritising sustainable development; and natural resource management.

On the eve of receiving his prize, de Carvalho has a simple message for the people of Australia.

"Tell them that we appreciate Australia's helping us over these last few years, we appreciate this very much," he says.

"But we need the people of Australia to still stand with us, to stand for the truth. That means talking about the truth of Timor Gap.

"We have to recognise who the true owner of that resource is, for justice to both countries," he says.

Coincidently, that discussion resumes in Australia this week.

Timor Gap is a 250 kilometre area under the Timor Sea between East Timor and Australia and is rich in gas and oil.

Australia stands to gain 80per cent of the royalties from exploitation of the Greater Sunrise area in the Timor Sea.

The maritime boundaries remain disputed and in de Carvalho's opinion: "The agreement Australia signed in 1972 with Indonesia tells us this area is still in dispute, as are the resources.

"Defining the maritime boundaries with justice is vital for both countries."

Bob Brown, federal leader of the Greens and a former recipient of the Goldman prize, spent yesterday in Dili talking with the East Timorese about the disputed boundaries. The issue is straightforward for him.

"What Australia is doing is grand larceny," he says. "The richest country in the region is robbing the poorest and telling them they can have 20per cent or nothing. It is a shameful business."

Not that any of this will come as a surprise to de Carvalho.

"I know that to gain our independence, we have lost many things. But I am optimistic about the future."

Today, half the population of this young nation live on less than a $1 per day, life expectancy is one of the world's lowest at 49years, infant mortality is one of the highest at 12per cent and 70per cent of the people are illiterate.

Nevertheless, de Carvalho does not accept that East Timor's environment has to go the way of other Third World countries.

"We have limited resources." he says. "With only 2per cent of virgin forest left, one of our first tasks is to begin community reforestation projects to hang on to our biodiversity."

This is vital, not just from a biodiversity point of view, but also because the forest plays such a powerful role in managing the water supply and controlling flooding.

Nowhere is the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation clearer than in the East Timor capital, Dili.

"People are still cutting down trees around Dili," says de Carvalho, "because kerosene is so expensive and they need the wood for their kitchens and fuel.

"That's why we have two jobs here. To preserve and rebuild the environment, but also to create jobs that lift people out of this poverty."

But in this country, all roads lead back to Timor Gap.

The oil and gas fields will not only provide revenue, but as de Carvalho says, "we can use the gas for our own energy needs and avoid the catastrophe of the mega projects".

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