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Exploring options to improve livelihoods and resource management in Timor-Leste’s coastal communities

Spear fisher

Photo by Alex Tilley.

As a young post-conflict state with new government institutions and rapid population growth, Timor-Leste faces multiple challenges in lifting her people out of food insecurity and generating wealth to fuel economic growth. Recent research in rural and coastal communities suggests that the fisheries and aquaculture sectors are falling well short of their potential to contribute in a substantive way to improving livelihoods, food and nutrition security and wellbeing. Micronutrients and amino acids available from fish in particular have great potential to improve health and development outcomes in the first 1000 days of life. This project targeted two interventions with potential to improve fisheries yields and sustainability that were given the highest priority by communities and government in fisheries diagnoses conducted under preceding projects – technology development for nearshore pelagic fisheries, and improved community-based management.

Diagnostic and baseline data were collected using a detailed broad-coverage household survey on Atauro Island – a highly fish-dependent area, and through participatory diagnosis methods in the three project focus communities. The survey highlighted that specialising as a fisher was rare, with most households engaging in a number of livelihood activates. Fishing was less subject to shocks than other natural-resource based livelihoods, and where fishing could be practiced year-round, livelihoods were less diverse suggesting some preference for fishing when and if it was an option. Fishing showed a greater contribution to household income than crop farming. The study found that geographic location, rather than livelihood structure, was the best predictor of household wellbeing indicators. Clearly structural drivers of poverty are dominant, and need to be addressed along with livelihoods and resource status in policy interventions.

During previous projects fishers highlighted Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) – locally called rumpon - as a potentially productive approach to diversifying livelihoods within the fishery sector. Nearshore FADs are an anchored floating mass designed to provide a habitat that attracts pelagic (oceanic) fish close to shore, making these fish accessible to small-scale fishers. Timor is regionally unique in that current exploitation rates of these stocks appear quite low. Initial attempts to deploy FADs failed due to extreme bathymetric and current conditions, and a drawn out process of design evolution produced a design that now appears robust and suitable. New FAD designs deployed with communities on Atauro Island have enabled increases of up to 2.5 fold in the catch per unit effort of small pelagic fish.

Moreover, the combination of FADs and new community rules for reef management tested through this project, worked exceptionally well at increasing yields while reducing reliance on vulnerable reef fisheries. The promise of improved access to pelagic resources through FAD deployment provided an equitable mechanism to enable the community to develop and enact rules that would reduce their own fishing pressure and use of unsustainable fishing methods on reef areas. The close proximity of FADs to the community ensured that this change in fishing location did not disadvantage the poorest among the fishers, who rely on small non-motorised canoes to access fishing sites. The use of the traditional tara banduinstitution for developing community rules was successful, and an ex-postcase study of a coastal tara bandu established 5 years ago showed sustainability without continued external input, and high levels of community ownership and respect for rules.

To build government capacity to engage effectively in co-management, the project also worked with the fisheries administration towards developing an improved fishery data collection system, which also functioned as a monitoring system for project outcomes.

The governance system in Timor-Leste is ‘primed’ to adopt co-management as a principal approach to coastal fisheries management, yet there is little guidance on approach, and there has been no government-led implementation to-date. This project provides a clear pathway to implementation and has tested a technological innovation to sustainably improve food and nutrition security outcomes. Project outputs and outcomes will directly influence new policy directions in Timor-Leste through the new National Fishery Strategy currently (2017-18) under development.