Atauro Island, a short boat ride from the capital Dili, was previously used by Portuguese and Indonesian settlers as a deportation site for East Timorese prisoners of war.
The scars of occupation still remain, but recent conservation efforts by the local community have protected surrounding coral reefs and fish populations, and encouraged tourism to the island.
Conservation-focused communities are helping protect Timor-Leste’s coral reefs.
Sebastian Estebao Marquez, 45, has lived most of his life on the island and now raises his children there with his wife, Lourdes de Araujo.
He is a community leader who promotes conservation projects on the island.
The island’s electricity comes primarily from gasoline, which is provided by the East Timorese government, but can be unreliable.
During extended power outages, residents are often cut off from the mainland, unable to use lights, fans or charge their mobile phones.
Marquez tried an Indonesian-made solar panel, but after it broke down a year later, his research led him to Australian-made panels and batteries.
He asked his family, who live in Australia as seasonal workers, to buy the panels, which cost US$150 (A$235), and mail them to him.
A year later, Marquez couldn’t be happier with the results.
“It was easy to set up, much easier than previous panels and worked straight away,” he told AAP.
“When I received the panels from Australia, my neighbors said they wanted to get them too, so next time my family becomes seasonal workers, I will have them send me more.”
Marquez said the initial costs were high, but the benefits quickly outweighed them.
One panel can power three lights in your home and charge your phone. This is especially useful when the island is out of power.
“My neighbors also want to get (solar panels) because they can pay once and have electricity when they need it,” he said.
Atauro Island was previously used by settlers as a place to deport East Timorese prisoners of war.
Marquez educates communities about conservation and ocean restoration, and helps establish fisheries reserves and clean up plastic waste.
Efforts to improve the island’s conservation are bound by the word “tala bundu,” a Tetun word that means a cultural law that forbids something.
The law will stop people from fishing in protected areas, dumping plastic into the ocean and damaging coral reefs around the islands.
Mr. Marquez said that under Tara Bundu there was no influence from the government, but much influence from the local community was a major disincentive to breaking the law.
“Culture plays a very important role in the Atauro community,” Marquez said.
Catherine Kim, a marine scientist at the Queensland University of Technology who studied the health of East Timor’s corals as part of her PhD, said the island’s geographical location provides a natural buffer against the effects of climate change, allowing for conservation and restoration. He said that he supports the efforts of
“Timor is located on an important oceanic route through which large amounts of water flow,” she said.
“With this complex ocean structure, I think there may be updrafts that bring cold water up to the surface.”
This helps cool the water around the coral.
“These areas are not immune to bleaching, but they are naturally buffered by the surrounding environment,” Dr. Kim said.
Marquez hopes more people on the island will use solar panels to reduce their impact on the environment.
“Next time my family becomes seasonal workers, we’ll have more panels sent back,” he said.
The AAP reporter traveled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.