Make your own free website on

Conservation of Biodiversity: Critical Issues in Small Developing States


Graham Baines



To be effective and lasting, biodiversity conservation needs to be an integral part of economic and social development. It is not easy to put this ideal into practice. East Timor’s needs might best be served by a focused set of immediate actions, with a more comprehensive and detailed strategy for biodiversity conservation being developed from information and experience emerging from this first phase. Based on similarities with circumstances in Pacific island countries, critical issues are identified as a basis for discussion.



Biodiversity is made up of the many plants and animals that provide the basis for life. Some of these plants and animals are used directly by people for things such as food, medicine, clothing or housing. Others provide indirect benefits for people; for example, tiny soil animals and bacteria process soil to make it fertile; forest trees slow the fall of rain and guide water into the soil and to streams. Conservation is part of development. The word “conserve” means to use resources carefully.


East Timor’s biodiversity has been severely degraded. It is not realistic to dream of restoring all that has been lost, though some rehabilitation may be possible. Conservation is not just about “protected areas”. To be effective, biodiversity conservation should be an integral part of a programme of sustainable development, backed by a participatory process of planning. It is suggested that East Timor consider an initial emphasis on 1) support interventions for rural communities’ use and management of land and sea biodiversity, while 2) implementing an environmentally responsible framework for guiding and regulating urban and industrial development.


First actions identified should be those that will:

·         address people’s basic needs in the use of biodiversity,

·         begin to slow the current trend in degradation of biodiversity and natural resources,

·         establish a trend towards a sustainable use of land and sea resources,

·         introduce measures to protect water sources and supplies,

·         ensure that urban and industrial development is planned and executed according to “best practice” methods which avoid damage to land and sea resources;

·         identify species and areas of special biodiversity importance;

·         initiate surveys of the status of resources and biodiversity, and of people’s rights and relationships to them, while

·         building on the strengths of traditional resource management practice and knowledge.


The needs of “nature conservation” are not specifically identified in the above listing. Some of these needs will emerge from this first phase and be addressed through simple protection measures. Nature conservation would become an integral item of the medium and long-term strategies that should subsequently be developed.


Biodiversity in Pacific islands countries cannot be considered in isolation from cultural diversity. “The very basis of Pacific island cultures has long been the interrelationship between the individual, the clan or tribal group, and the environment.”[1]


East Timor must deal with a number of problems that are common to other small island states. From the experience of Pacific island countries, these critical issues are apparent:


1.       Meeting immediate subsistence and economic development needs without further degrading environment and biodiversity.


2.       Restoring the potential of degraded land and sea areas to produce natural resources, maintain vital ecological processes and sustain genetic diversity.


3.       Maintaining the quality of land and sea environments so that they will continue, always, to provide the resources needed to ensure a satisfactory quality of life for all citizens.


4.       Understanding and appreciating the value of genetic, species and ecosystem biodiversity.


5.       Finding effective means of accommodating customary land and sea tenure systems in a framework for community and national development, and of using traditional knowledge and practice in a fresh approach to development that builds on the best of tradition, strengthened by modern interventions.


The indications are that East Timor has a chance to establish and follow a path of sustainable development – though the difficulties will be considerable. Experience elsewhere suggests that threats to success will come from pressures for quick and unsustainable economic returns from natural resources, and from ignorance of the value and role of biodiversity in development. Through the sixties and seventies various Pacific island countries reached this decisive point in their history. Their success in management of their biodiversity has been less than they had hoped. There are, however, some successful examples of biodiversity conservation from which East Timor could benefit.


[1] S.Siwatibau, 1990. Intervention at the 18th IUCN General Assembly.