19 September 2018

Who should grant environmental licenses for mining and petroleum?

One of the State’s fundamental objectives is: “to protect the environment and to preserve natural resources.” (Article 6(f) of the RDTL Constitution). The Constitution continues: “The State should promote actions aimed at protecting the environment and safeguarding the sustainable development of the economy” (Article 61.3), and “The exploitation of the natural resources shall preserve the ecological balance and prevent destruction of ecosystems.” (Article 139.3).

Article 33.1(o) of Decree-Law 14/2018 of 17 August assigns to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining (MPM, previously MPRM) the responsibility to carry out the environmental licensing process for petroleum and mining, including granting of licenses. This law also assigns MPM the tasks of guaranteeing maximum participation in Timor-Leste’s petroleum and mining sector activities and promoting sectoral opportunities by attracting and ensuring foreign investment.

With one hand MPM is meant to maximize growth in the sector, and with the other hand they are given the power to issue environmental licenses. From an industry perspective, having the MPM in charge would help to streamline and secure the process to meet industry goals.  From an environmental perspective, having the MPM in change could spell massive disaster, including the destruction of land, poisoning of water and polluting of air. We must protect our environment from this conflict of interest.

Over the last decade, the MPM has grown, and now has several large institutions under its umbrella, including a regulatory body (ANPM), a national oil company (TimorGAP), a geological research center (IPG), and a nascent national mining company (MT). MPM, representing the Timor-Leste Government, also promotes and manages the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), whose focus is on transparency at an international standard. To add environmental licensing responsibilities for petroleum and mining to this list not only violates basic principles of good governance; it points to sectoral ambitions which, for the sake of our environment, need independent control.

Environmental licensing is intended to guarantee sustainable use of our natural resources and to ensure a clean and healthy environment for current and future generations of Timorese people. For example, before the government builds a power plant, road, airport or large building, or before a private company builds a factory, oil well, refinery or tourist resort, they must, by law, present project documents, including an Environmental Impact Assessment and an Environment Management Plan, to the Environmental Authority. The Authority evaluates and suggests changes to these documents before it issues an environmental license, which is required before a major project can be built. In this way, the Environmental Authority can help ensure that large development projects are carried out properly, sustainably, and minimizing negative impacts on the environment and people’s lives.

Timor-Leste’s existing environmental regulations have strong principles, mechanisms and processes, as described in the Base Law on the Environment (Decree-Law 26/2012) and the Environmental Licensing Law (Decree-Law 5/2011).  These laws define the role of the Environmental Authority to lead procedures relating to environmental impact evaluations and issuing environmental licenses for development projects with significant environmental risks and impacts, including in the petroleum and mining sector. These laws and their complementary policies require transparency and basic principles of good governance, and for the largest projects, they require consultation and planning with the local community.

For environmental regulation of large development projects to be effective, it must be led by an independent entity, not one whose goals include the promotion and implementation of these same projects. This ensures accountability (checks and balances), transparency and shields against political interventions in the implementation of the law due to conflicts of interest.

The National Directorate for Pollution Control and Environmental Impact (DNCPIA), under the Secretary of State for the Environment, is the existing Environmental Authority with the mandate to regulate and lead the evaluation and approval process for environmental licensing. According to La’o Hamutuk’s observations, DNCPIA has the experience and technical skills to implement policies and laws related to environmental licensing. La’o Hamutuk encourages the Government to build on and invest in the knowledge, experience and technical skills which already exist within the Environmental Authority, and to address any specific limitations as needed. This will ensure proper and sustainable implementation of the environmental laws.

We all depend on Timor-Leste’s land, water and air; together, we must defend and protect this precious and fragile environment. For that reason, we must together insist that Article 33.1(o) be removed from Decree-Law 14/2018.

Our environment needs all the advocates it can get right now, and we call on decision makers in Government and Parliament and all citizens to raise your voice against the dangerous implications of article 33.1(o) of the Decree-Law.  If this Decree-Law is not changed, there will be huge and devastating consequences for people and the living things around us for many generations to come.

On 11 September, La’o Hamutuk wrote a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to reconsider this issue, which we also described in a press release.


  1. Maybe Lao hamutuk is blind to the fact that for the last decade, througg ANPM, MPM has been assessing and granting environmental licenses in the Joint Petroleum Development Area. It has also, through ANPM, worked and coordinated with DNCPIA on enviromental assessment and licensing in Timor Leste exclusive areas, offshore and onshore.

    1. La'o Hamutuk has closely followed environmental licensing procedures for many years, and has advocated privately and publicly that existing environmental laws be implemented properly. Under the soon-to-be-defunct Timor Sea Treaty with Australia, ANP/ANPM handled environmental licensing for projects in the JPDA, as the area was not yet considered part of Timor-Leste's territory. These processes had many weaknesses (for an example, see La'o Hamutuk's 2010 submission) and did not comply with the consultation and transparency requirements of Timor-Leste's current environmental licensing laws.

      We recognize that there have been shortcomings in DNCPIA's implementation of environmental licensing processes and hope that the VIII government will be more transparent and consultative than its predecessors. However, we continue to believe that environmental licensing and supervision works best when it is done by a different agency than the one responsible for implementing a project -- and the experience of ANP environmental oversight of JPDA projects bears this out. Timor-Leste and Australia have been fortunate that no major known environmental disasters have yet occurred in the JPDA, but as oil exploration moves closer to our communities in the Timor-Leste Exclusive Offshore Area and onshore in Covalima and Manufahi districts, potential consequences are greater and oversight needs to be more effective.

  2. Good point of view. Thanks for the sharing