De Carvalho.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

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East Timor is the world’s newest country. Once a Portuguese colony, the tiny Southeast Asian nation covers half of a 300-mile-long coral island. When Portugal withdrew from the island in the mid-1970s, East Timor became a disputed territory, and for decades it was devastated by civil war and Indonesian military occupation. When the East Timorese people voted for independence in 1999, Indonesian-backed militias looted and burned throughout the island, killing residents and forcing an estimated 500,000 people from their homes. In late 1999, Portugal and Indonesia both agreed to the United Nations’ assumption of temporary authority in East Timor. Since then, the young country has been piecing together the institutions and infrastructure of a fully independent state.

Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, 37, has spent most of his life fighting for East Timor’s independence. He’s now the leader of the country’s first and only environmental group. The Haburas Foundation — haburas means “to make green and fresh” in East Timor’s national language — has successfully pressed for environmental and sustainable-development principles to be included in the country’s new constitution. De Carvalho and his group are working to put those principles into practice.

De Carvalho was awarded a 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize in a ceremony in San Francisco, Calif., on April 19. He plans to share some of the prize money with his organization, and will use the rest to build houses for himself and his family. De Carvalho spoke to Grist in English, with occasional help from a translator.

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I understand your work for East Timorese independence began when you were very young. What led you to become an activist?

When the Indonesians invaded East Timor in 1975, I was 9 years old. For four years, I was hiding in the jungle — that gave me the opportunity to understand the importance of the environment for people’s lives.

Can you tell me a little about how East Timor and its people were affected by the Indonesian occupation?

During the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to1999, and especially from 1975 to 1980, the Indonesians bombarded East Timor. They not only killed people, but destroyed the environment. When they left East Timor in 1999, they had destroyed 75 percent of the country’s infrastructure.

Now that East Timor has gained its independence, what are the greatest challenges faced by your country?

The great challenges for our country, our new nation, are from two sides: From the inside, we have to change our patterns of consumption, change our attitudes. When we are talking about preservation and conservation, we have to make sure we do not exploit our resources in a bad way. Another challenge comes from the outside, from people who would exploit our environment and our culture.

What is East Timor’s most serious environmental problem?

Deforestation. Our economic situation right now is that half the population lives on under $1 per day. People depend on natural resources, on cutting firewood for heat and to sell. That’s an example of how the economic situation affects the environment.

You’ve said that East Timor must learn from the development mistakes of its Pacific neighbors. What problems do you hope to avoid?

The problem we want to avoid is overexploitation of the natural world. We have paid a high price for the independence of our country, and we should make sure that this price is not for our generation but for future generations. We have to understand how to develop this country better — we have to practice good management and sustainable development.

De Carvalho founded East Timor’s first environmental organization.

Photo: De Carvalho.

What inspired you to form the Haburas Foundation, East Timor’s first environmental organization?

We founded the organization in 1998, when we were still occupied. We decided that East Timor needed an entity to focus on environmental issues, to make sure that our country was on the right track for sustainable development.

Can you explain the principle of Tara Bandu that your organization follows?

Tara Bandu is an East Timor tradition, a customary law that we recognize as traditional ecological wisdom. It involves a kind of agreement within a community to protect a special area for a period of time. During the occupation this practice was prohibited, so we are trying to revive it, to remind people about it. One of our agreements is in a village close to our capital — it protects the forest around that village. In the agreement there are volunteers, called kablea, who maintain the rules that have been agreed to. During the last three years, the people have respected this agreement.

I understand that you have been involved in negotiations with Australia over control of marine petroleum reserves. What interests do you and the Haburas Foundation represent in those negotiations?

We understand that everywhere in the world oil exploration is related to environmental degradation and pollution, so our first objective is to prevent that. The other issue is that the negotiations between our government and the Australian government are unequal. The treaty signed by these two countries is unfair and unjust for the East Timorese people. During the last three years, the Australian government has earned $1 billion in revenue in the disputed areas and East Timor has earned nothing. We don’t know yet who is the owner of those resources, and I think it’s important to define so we can share those resources fairly. The income or revenue we get from this resource is not just for our generation but also for future generations — this is not a renewable resource.

What are the other priorities for the Haburas Foundation?

One is hydro development in our country. Yes, our country needs energy to develop, but we have to make sure that every development will care about the environment. There is a plan to develop hydropower in Iralalaru Lake in East Timor — international financial institutions are promoting that project with our government. We want to make sure projects like that respect the Timorese people’s voice, and that they consider the environment as an important issue.

What does this prize mean to you?

I think it’s important for myself and the organization — but more important than that, it recognizes the Timorese people’s struggle to restore and rehabilitate, to protect the environment.