16 December 2008

Letter to the East Timor President from Rui Pinto on sustainable development and sugarcane

Wed, 10 Dec 2008 17:14:36 - 0800


You have known me and my family since, well since before I was born. You may remember me as that little nholuene (street kid) running bare-foot in the slums of Maputo. That rascal that used to steal mangoes from distinguished members of both FRELIMO’s and FRETILIN’s Central Committee, in carefully planned and synchronized raids with other street kids.

Well I have grown slightly since then, moved to Dili after the restoration of our independence and since then I am willing to write to let you know of my current “whereabouts” and the situation of our beloved environment. For too long I have remained in silence, your Excellency.

I believe I have been fortunate as I was one of the few hundred of Timorese that was given the opportunity to study abroad, sent to the great island down south. While I was in the “land down under” I did my best to study and learn from the best in an under-budgeted School of Zoology, from my mentors, close friends, the myriad of putative researchers and from a truly jovial character that is still to finish his PhD.

I feel that I would be betraying every single one of them if I was to remain in silence; I would be betraying my forefather and those “long haired youngsters” (the ones baptized as “ideological terrorists” such as yourself) that have started this country and tirelessly fought for our independence.

As your Excellency may be aware, the government appointed by you to govern this great Maubere Nation of ours has signed an MoU to plant sugarcane in Suai, Viqueque, Manatuto and Lospalos.

It is not my intention to question neither the legitimacy of this government nor the legitimacy of your choice, however, Comrade President, I have no quandary pointing out that the dim-witted decisions of the current Government are an impediment to any faint ideas that your Excellency may still hold of sustainable development for Timor-Leste.

This current Government has, under your watchful eyes, signed a dubious[1] MoU presenting the government’s intention in granting 6/10 of Timor-Leste’s total arable land[2] and nearly 90% of Timor-Leste’s arable flatlands and plains[3] to plant sugarcane.

It is commonsense that this project poses significant threats to our food and water security and, presents itself as a threat to the sustainability of Timor-Leste as a sovereign nation and yet you have not come forward and spoken up.

The product of this sugarcane plantation is meant to produce bioethanol that is meant to power cars at the other end of the world, this project will simply nourish egos of several hundred “eco gluttons” while Timorese starve by the thousands because their land was taken away from them, and their economic freedom. The unwary Maubere and Buibere are at the dawn of eminent starvation. Those that say they are eco-friendly, actually have ecological footprints that would make big foot look like an infant.

Excellency, I would like you to engage in this little game of mine called “I will remember before I forget”. In this game I will remind you of the key parts of your “A vision for our beloved country” speech and explain why I believe that, while I don’t take you for a mal intended politician, your vision has faded, eroded and is at a stage of delusion.

The first quote I have picked from your “A vision for our beloved country” was:

“We must remember that Timor-Leste is a relatively arid island with few rivers and lakes. With population growth the available land and water will shrink further in the next 20 years.”
(José Ramos-Horta: A vision for our beloved country)

I am sure that even though arithmetic, calculus, and mathematics may not be your forte the land area concerns raised by National Parliament were very didactic, they even had examples of how much 100,000 hectares are measured in “soccer fields” for a mathematic illiterate. Granting 6/10 of the arable land will accelerate even further to what you refer to as “shrinkage” of land, and furthermore I am sure that your team of able and well paid international Environmental Advisers must have told you that sugarcane plantations required bountiful amounts of water, use of a plethora of chemicals that poison the very environment that you have said you are willing to protect. Not only will this project upset the biodiversity and the ecological equilibrium of several habitats and ecotones but it would further eat away traditional ecological and agricultural knowledge of several ethnolinguistic groups and would configure the diverse local knowledge, shaping their culture into a monoculture, much like the plantation.

I am not aware if your team of respectful Environmental Advisers and skillful Ministers has briefed you on the Company’s “brilliant” idea of creating a series of water reservoirs, and their plans to use copious amounts of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that are bound to:

1. pollute wetlands of national significance,
2. destroy important bird areas,
3. destroy the refuge for a series of migratory birds,
4. wipe out unique species, a reminder of evolution[4]

Surely they would have told of the detrimental environmental implications reservoirs would have on environmental flows, the unique ecosystems[5] of the South coast and on the livelihoods of the people (who will be devoid of using water in such structures).

Your Excellency, your Government has proposed to grant 6/10 of the arable land for a period of 50 years, now do you believe that this is socially viable? If you think of “Food security” how unsecure would we be granting away 6/10 of our arable land to a foreign company?

Do you truly believe in the sustainability of this project?

You are meant to be the President of the poor, this project will indubitably shatter the livelihoods of thousands, where is your pro-poor policy now?

I strongly believe that the sugarcane project contradicts what you have written in your so-called “Vision for our beloved country” and yet your lips have remained sealed, you have become powerless, impotent to fight this regime that throws our people to live in slums, while the government acts as a canteen in the name of food security; buying rice, taxing it, and then reselling “making a killing” in profits and exploiting our martyred people.

By remaining in silence you have unwillingly acknowledged that you have lost the inner drive for your vision for our beloved environment, is it lost or hidden in the remote recants of your troubled soul?

I here question your environmental concerns your Excellency. It is not enough to watch “An inconvenient truth” and write a couple of lines on your speeches saying that you care for the environment, if the “drive” is wrong, if the belief is not there, you are just an environmental charlatan.

Going back to your speech, you have eloquently said:

“I advocate the launching of a major land, water and forest preservation program to save our land and create jobs.”
(José Ramos-Horta: A vision for our beloved country)

Despite this being a major land and water project, I do not believe this is a “land saving” project. If we look at the experiences of other brotherly nations (Brazil, Mozambique) that have planted sugarcane plantations have had detrimental impacts to their people, flora, fauna and geomorphology.

I was the first to debunk the fallacious ideas presented by your government that this project would generate 10,000 jobs with facts and figures and taken from several academic papers. I have also publicly discredited some of the social and environmental benefits anticipated by the government[6]. I have presented data showing that in fact, this project would threaten some 20 plus important bird species.

It is un-Timorese of you, your Excellency to remain quiet in this time of need, as you have sworn:
“To protect the environment and to preserve natural resources” (Constitution Article 6, line f).

By remaining in silence you have pilfered the Maubere Peoples “(…) right to a humane, healthy, and ecologically balanced environment” and of their “duty to protect it and improve it for the benefit of the future generations.” (Constitution Article 61)

Given that vast amount of information points out that this project is likely to change and even destroy several ecosystems and, since the utilization of the natural resources in Timor-Leste should preserve “the ecological balance and prevent destruction of ecosystems” (Article 139, line 3), why have you chose to remain quiet?

Environmental concerns surpass political ideologies and the pre-election alliances have biased your judgment. I should point out this “willing but not so able government” has repeatedly misinterpreted the writings in our constitution, to benefit foreign “entrepreneurs”, mouthpieces of multinational companies that come here to make an easy buck, due to your ludicrous tax incentives that have brought about the collapse of our environment.

Excellency, thus far you have but “raised my limitations”. You have compromised your status of independence when you defended the in-defendable[7], closed your eyes to the obvious[8], and quietly allowed mayhem to settle in Government.

While you were swift in expressing your disgruntlement for the Peace Rally, as in your words, it would put at stake the legitimacy of the current government, and by default the government of your choice, you are still to speak out on matters of the environment.

Sometimes I find myself asking the same question that my judicious and poetic lecturer of Evolutionary Biology and Biogeography asked, “does it really matter?” By God, your Excellency it does, this truly matters your Excellency.

In fact, perhaps I should again remind you that in this coming age, any disregard for the environment can prove to be costly to our people and Nation, as well as to the image of those who govern and still dream of having a “greater vocation[9]”.

After signing the MoU the government (that you have “hand-picked”) has chosen to turned a blind eye to our constitution, the subsidiary legislation applicable in Timor-Leste, and the international environmental agreements signed and ratified by Timor-Leste.

I have stated loud and clear that this MoU is environmentally unsound and have disseminated this information in National Parliament; however, the National Parliament’s ability to take the due course of action has been limited due to the ceaseless introgressions of the Government in National Parliament and the judiciary alike[10].

In terms of subsidiary legislation the government “forgot” to follow the subsidiary legislation such as: Law number 23/1997 on environmental management, Government Regulation 53/1993 on environment impact assessment, Government Regulation 20/1999 on control of water pollution. Furthermore if this project goes ahead this is a clear violation of several United Nation Conventions.

I would like to ask your Excellency to call upon a and environmental impact assessment of this project, a cumulative impact assessment (line f Government Regulation 53/1993) and additionally I would appreciate it if you could natter to your Ministers, strike a chord, tell them to cease the intimidations to the first newspaper[11] that has published some of these environmental concerns.

Yours truly,

Rui Pinto

[1] The Ombudsman report found evidence mal administration practices in this MoU plus warned that this MoU may open doors to Human rights violations.

[2] World Food Program ( http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/vam/wfp067434.pdf )

[3]Based on the data and statistics supplied by the representative of the AMP government in the Sugarcane public hearing

[4]As you may remember I mentioned the results of the last Paitchau Range expedition were 4 new species of orchids found and described, I believe I have told you about the discovery of a new freshwater hardyhead in Lospalos and of new turtle species in Iralalaru lake

[5]Most of the rivers and creeks in Timor-Leste are ephemeral in nature except for those in the South Coast where the company intends to establish the sugarcane farm,

[6]Kla’ak (22): 9

[7]Economic Stabilization Fund

[8]Corruption accusations against Minister Lucia Lobato, published in Tempo Semanal, together with documents, sms’s written by the Minister; Sms’s written by our distinguished “Procurador Geral” telling MPs how to vote, and so forth.

[9]Say… UN Secretary General

[10]The case of judge Ivo Rosa’s contract, it was “decided” that his contract would not be renewed after his decision to rule the Economic Stabilization fund as unconstitutional

[11]Tempo Semanal (88):12

Image: Headland in East Timor

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