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Environmental Management for Small Island States


Dr Graham Baines, Environment Pacific



An environmental management administration is likely to be an essential element of governance in East Timor. The scope and magnitude of the tasks faced is considerable and includes both national and international responsibilities. Pacific island countries faced similar needs at Independence. Their individual efforts, coupled with support from a South Pacific Regional Environment Programme are useful examples despite their qualified success. Some of the factors and issues that hindered success are identified. It is suggested that East Timor begin with a modest and focused programme as a first phase of an environmental management administration, with a view to later extension.



East Timorese face many environmental problems arising from years of neglect and mismanagement for which a wide range of new policies, laws and practices are needed. Any environmental management institution will need to embrace a wide range of functions and technical expertise.


Some of the issues to be addressed have an international dimension; particularly in relation to environment and natural resources shared with Australia and Indonesia and this adds to the workload. As East Timor enters the global community, in an environmental sense it will be expected to “think globally and act locally”. This means acting on local and environmental issues but with reference to the global context of which local issues are but a part. United Nations member countries have assumed a number of international environmental obligations through conventions. By becoming party to these conventions East Timor will be able to tap financial and technical support for management of biodiversity and environment. However, the responsibilities of membership of these conventions are very demanding for small island states. With few trained staff even for priority local issues, a significant amount of valuable staff time will be at risk of being diverted to meet the reporting requirements of Convention Secretariats overseas. A careful analysis of the relative costs and benefits for East Timor of becoming party to these conventions is advisable.


Pacific island countries faced the same choices, contradictions and dilemmas at Independence. Their similarities of circumstance and needs in environmental management and biodiversity conservation led to the establishment of a South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). This has been of some assistance to Pacific island governments. However, SPREP’s effectiveness has been hindered by its transformation from a “low key” support unit into a “big and glossy” regional organisation geographically and, to some extent, conceptually distant from its clients. It was never intended that SPREP assume all environmental management roles of member countries. Each island nation has still had to establish some form of environmental management unit. Their forms and their level of success vary, and none has been able to meet the ideals envisaged at Independence.


Factors and issues which have diminished the effectiveness of environmental management agencies and staff in Pacific island countries include[1]:


·         The wide range of subject matter requires that officers be “multi-tasked”. This dilutes their effectiveness and they find little opportunity for field work. Governments cannot afford to employ environmental field staff, but no effort has been made to address this deficiency through cooperative arrangements with agriculture, fisheries and forestry agencies.

·         Very small staff numbers means that absences while training, and while attending conferences, incur a significant loss of conservation effort at home.

·         Development assistance agencies rightly require local counterparts for projects. In small island countries this places even more demands on the time of the multi-tasked, minimally supported, often absent for training or conferences, local staff.

·         While it has been reassuring to see conservation policy spelled out in the five year economic development plans of several island countries, this has not been reflected in the way governments undertake development activities.

·         Some excellent environmental legislation has been introduced, but has often been rendered ineffective through absence of support for implementation, or through the enactment of later legislation that overides environmental controls.

·         Environmental management and biodiversity protection functions are among the first to be curtailed when governments face budgetary difficulties. Unlike in “developed democracies” there is weak public support that might be translated into voter pressure on governments.

·         Since environment and conservation work has been regarded as secondary to mainstream development, work in this area has offered limited career development opportunities in rigid public service structures and this has discouraged some of the better quality officers.

·         Liberal offerings by donors of funds to support islander participants in overseas conferences has led to a tendency for recipients to accept all offers without first ascertaining which conferences are truly relevant to their needs. Every conference attended has a cost in terms of home-based conservation effort.

·         Competition and rivalry between government agencies weakens environmental management administration. Special effort is required to forge cooperative linkages.

·         National environmental agencies have developed a strong sense of territoriality. They tend to see conservation initiatives by others as competition rather than support. Little effort has been made to encourage environmental management at lower levels of government, but there are some efforts to support village communities in this respect.

·         It has taken a long time for Government agencies to feel “comfortable” with NGOs and this has hindered the contribution that NGOs can make to national conservation efforts. This problem has arisen from misunderstandings on both “sides”.

·         No conservation or environmental management initiative in rural areas of any Pacific island country has been successful except where local communities were engaged and closely involved.

·         All Pacific island conservation agencies face an acute problem of inadequate information for conservation action and for environmental management. Part of the problem lies in the absence of a framework to guide the return of meaningful data from research undertaken by outsiders.


East Timor could act to pre-empt or minimise these problems, and might consider a phased approach to the establishment and development of an environmental management administration. A first, short term phase might focus on a selected range of the tasks needed, introduce priority “minimalist” forms of legislation (to be used as a basis for more comprehensive legislation at a later time), contract out (with donor financial support) much of the fieldwork (surveys and status reports will be urgently needed), while ensuring that these contracts provide for meaningful in-service training for East Timorese (government, NGO and community).

[1]  More detail is to be found in:  Baines, G.B.K., 1990. Conservation policy and practice in the South Pacific island region. Theme Paper, In. Proceedings, Fourth South Pacific Conference on Nature Conservation and Protected Areas.