11 October 2018

Timor-Leste’s waters must remain a sanctuary for whales and dolphins

Joint Statement from Civil Society

Dili, 10 October 2018
Sperm whales. From Timor-Leste from Below, Episode 6.

Considering recent moves by the Government of Japan in support of whaling, we are concerned that the issue may come up during the Japanese Foreign Minister’s visit to Timor-Leste which begins on 11 October. We wish to make clear our strong support for Timor-Leste remaining a sanctuary for whales and dolphins.

As organizations committed to protecting the unique natural environment and valuable heritage of our beloved Timor-Leste, we note the Government’s strong support for marine ecotourism development and the protection of all marine life, as articulated in the National Strategic Development Plan, and in the Government’s recent Tourism Policy.  We also recognize and support the Ministry of Tourism’s ongoing efforts (with partners) to lead and develop the marine ecotourism sector, through its whale and dolphin monitoring program, its work with local tour operators, eco-volunteer organizations and local fishing communities.  In the latest Council of Ministers’ meeting, a “Development Plan for a Sustainable Economy of Marine Eco-Tourism in Timor-Leste” was presented, describing  “a proposal to transform Timor-Leste so that it becomes a reference in dive tourism and whale watching in Southeast Asia” and including “the protection and conservation of all marine life.”  While we do not yet know the details of this proposal and look forward to learning more, it seems to support our view that marine eco-tourism has serious potential, if properly protected.

Pilot whales. Photo by Kevin Austin
We strongly support the protection of our oceans and eco-tourism as part of plans for a more diverse and sustainable economy. A large percentage of our population already depends on marine and coastal life for food, nutrition, and family income. If developed appropriately, building on the Government’s existing efforts, whale watching and eco-tourism have the potential to bring significant economic benefits to local communities. There is an urgent need to diversify our economy, to bolster and expand non-petroleum sectors such as agriculture and fishing, small productive industries and tourism. And these must be developed with a strong commitment to sustainable policies that will safeguard our fragile natural environmental heritage. Our territorial waters are already a sanctuary for whales and dolphins (see Joint Ministerial Order No.18/MAP/MCIA/II/2017, also English), and this offers a unique and special draw for tourists.

Recent articles by international academics and media point to Timor-Leste’s potential as a haven for eco-tourism, particularly for whale and dolphin watching. While limited, our waters are deep and hold within them an estimated 1/3 of all identified species of whales and dolphins (scientifically identified together as “cetacean”). International media companies have already done extensive work highlighting and marketing Timor-Leste’s marine eco-tourism potential through photos and videos highlighting Timor-Leste as a perfect place to see blue whales on their southern migration, swim with sperm whales and see some of the highest concentrated populations of whales and dolphins in the world.  Whale and dolphin watching is recognized around the world as one of the fastest growing tourist sectors; there is also serious interest among marine biologists to study and photograph these beautiful mammals of the sea.  Alongside our largely organic agricultural surroundings, permaculture gardens, beautiful beaches and vibrant coral reefs, whales and dolphins are part of our national treasure, marking Timor-Leste as unique in the world and increasing possibilities to bolster both national and international tourism. By comparison, Sri Lanka has built a strong tourism industry based around whale-watching, and the concentration of whales and dolphins there is far less than in Timor-Leste.

Marine eco-tourism, however, can only flourish if we are able to manage our resources properly and protect our whales and dolphins from the various threats they face such as commercial hunting, shipping strikes and plastic debris entanglement and digestion. These threats, which according to international environmental groups like Greenpeace are increasing, were highlighted in the recent International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Florianopolis, Brazil last month. The IWC was formed in 1946 and is currently made up of 89 member nations charged with the conservation of whales and management of whaling. In 1986, the IWC introduced a ban on commercial whaling, which is still in place. At this recent meeting, Japan introduced a highly controversial proposal, supported by 25 other members, which sought to remove the long-term ban, promoting instead a “coexistence” between conservation and commercial whaling. Following a bitter and heated debate, a majority of voting members rejected the Japanese proposal and confirmed the Florianopolis Declaration supporting the existing international ban on commercial whaling. Those defending this position say there is no need for endangering the whale population.

At the recent IWC meeting, fellow CPLP member Brazil proposed a measure to create a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic Ocean, but the proposal failed to secure the 2/3 majority it needed to pass. By maintaining our waters as a sanctuary for whales and dolphins, we not only protect our national treasure, but we also offer the world a unique and special place to see these creatures.

As affirmed in Article 61.3 of our Constitution, "The State should promote actions aimed at protecting the environment and safeguarding the sustainable development of the economy." Timor-Leste has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) which outlines state responsibilities for the management of marine resources, and we are a member of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In 2007, Timor-Leste ratified the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and has since developed a National Biodiversity Strategic and Action Plan of Timor-Leste (2011-2020) which includes protection of our marine habitat.

Timor-Leste’s globally significant marine biodiversity needs and deserves careful protection and restoration through new marine national parks and heritage areas. Our Government and Ministry of Tourism need to develop the important necessary regulations, infrastructure, tourism training, accreditation and baseline monitoring to ensure the development of a sustainable industry which will benefit local communities while also ensuring the protection of whales and dolphins.

Timor-Leste must stand in solidarity with those members of the IWC who sought to protect whales and dolphins. We must oppose so-called “sustainable whale fishing” because there is in fact no such thing; Whales and dolphins are mammals, not fish, and are hunted, not fished. We need to ensure that our national policies counter the strong pro-whaling lobby.

Together, we the undersigned commit to protecting our oceans, protected areas, whales and dolphins from those who threaten them.
  • La’o Hamutuk
  • Haburas Foundation, Friends of the Earth TL
  • HASATIL Network
  • Movimentu Hadomi Natureza (Mohana)
  • Conservation Flora and Fauna
  • Tafon Green Association
  • HAK Association
  • Rede ba Rai – Land Network
  • Kdadalak Sulimutu Institute
  • Movimentu Tasi Moos – Clean Ocean Movement
  • Oxfam in Timor-Leste

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