Revolutionary Conservation: an Exploration of Timor-Leste’s Nino Konis Santana National Park

This is (maybe soon to be) a blog post I wrote the National Geographic Explorers Journal, but its been pending for a few days, so I thought I would post it here first to get things rolling. 

My travel doctor now has a new country folder in her medical records because of me. Even with the hundreds of exotic postcards covering the walls of her New York City office, she had never had a patient heading to Timor-Leste before. Most people I’ve talked to about my trip have been equally surprised; East Timor is not exactly on the American radar as a glamorous Southeast Asian travel destination.

My personal interest in Timor-Leste began when I was very young. I lived in Jakarta during the late nineties when Indonesia’s then 27th province was fighting to transform itself from Timor Timur into its own independent nation. Working for USAID at the time, my father regularly visited Timor before and after its 1999 independence, helping to build emergency food stocks and providing provisions to internally displaced peoples. Even after moving back to the United States, Timor kept popping up in my life – on the news, in history classes, in academic papers I just happened to write.

A man walks along Dili's waterfront road carry the morning's catch.
A man walks along Dili’s waterfront road carry the morning’s catch.

Interested in both international development and the human relationship with nature, the more I read and watched and understood about Timor, the more fascinated I became. Take these two parallel histories:

In early August 2007, the future of Timor-Leste was far from certain. Still rebuilding from centuries of Portuguese colonization and decades of brutal Indonesian occupation, the world’s newest nation was struggling to keep political violence and civil unrest at bay. Even with a host of international peacekeeping forces on the island, protestors angry from the June parliamentary elections wreaked havoc on the capital Dili and in the surrounding rural districts, adding scores more civilians to already full internally displaced peoples camps.

A statue on Dili Harbor commemorating the resistance against Indonesian occupation from 1975-1999
A statue on Dili Harbor commemorating the resistance against Indonesian occupation from 1975-1999

This was not the beginning of such tension for Timor. Just over a year prior, the political discontent and civil unrest that had been simmering throughout the country’s first five years of nation building had bubbled over into a deadly armed conflict between guerilla groups and the military. And this would certainly not be the end. In under a year President Jose Ramos-Horta would be gravely injured in an assassination and coup attempt, causing upheaval in the nation’s senior leadership and leaving Parliament to declare an extended state of emergency.

Map of Nino Konis Santana National Park designed by the "we are boq" design studios
Map of Nino Konis Santana National Park designed by the “we are boq” design studios

At the same time in early August 2007, Timor-Leste established its first national park. Named for a celebrated resistance leader and national hero, Nino Konis Santana National Park covers more than 1200 square kilometers on the easternmost tip of Timor, nearly one tenth of the entire landmass of this small island nation. Environmentalists have heralded the region as an area of important biodiversity, as it connects a number of endangered bird areas and encompasses a large section of the Coral Triangle, an underwater zone believed to hold the greatest diversity of marine life on Earth.

Early morning on the Dili Harbor
Early morning on the Dili Harbor

Among the daunting tasks ahead of a fledgling government uncertain even of its own future, I personally did not expect “establishing a national park” to come out so high on Timor’s to-do list. Timor-Leste is also one of the world’s poorest countries with one of the highest population growth rates (a dangerous combination by any development measure). The natural resources in this area could be invaluable to improving the day-to-day existence of thousands of people and yet, in my understandings of national parks, turning them into part of a protected area essentially removes them from popular use. And why did this even happen in the first place? Was declaring the park simply a political tool for the 2007 elections or the product of foreign influences or simply the inevitable fate of such a remote and underdeveloped area?

A fruit and vegetable market in Dili
A fruit and vegetable market in Dili

These questions of the how and the why of East Timor’s Nino Konis Santana National Park are the fundamental purpose of this project. A National Geographic Young Explorer Grant made this investigation possible and this blog will be a periodic update of the time my companions and myself spent wandering through Timor-Leste. (I must admit that this writing is more than a few weeks behind my actual travels; Nino Konis National Park is full of beauty but lacking in wifi.) I hope you stay tuned and enjoy!

View overlooking Dili Harbor
View overlooking Dili Harbor
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