It is a common sight in Díli: pedestrians picking their way carefully across large, unmarked holes in the street or sidewalk, while dead trees lean in rigor mortis over the road. Among those places ringed with potholes and dead trees is Parliament, symbol of Timor-Leste and site of the upcoming August 30th celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of Timor-Leste’s vote for independence. The events are set to draw international state leaders, dignitaries, press, and visitors, which begs the question: is this really the image that Timor-Leste wishes to present to the world?
The question is one of security as much as aesthetics. The upcoming twentieth anniversary is an important opportunity for Timor-Leste to show the tremendous strides that it has made as the world’s first twenty-first century nation, one coming off the heels of a brutal occupation and centuries of colonization. Timor-Leste has made significant gains in education and adult literacy, nudged out Iran for a spot on the first-ever UN Women’s Board in 2010, and shown regional leadership with the formation of the g7+ and the LBTQ Pride March; yet all these victories now risk being overshadowed by an ambassador breaking a leg in an uncovered gutter, or being brained by a falling branch.
This does not require a stretch of the imagination: take the 2010 incident, when one Institute of Business student was killed and seven others injured when a branch from the sickly banyan tree that they were gathered under abruptly fell. The group had been sitting in front of Casa Europa, just down the street from Parliament.
The occurrence is not an isolated one. In fact, FM investigations reveal that hazards abound in Díli. The tree where the Institute of Business student died has since been removed, but Parliament is still fronted by several dead trees and gaps in its sidewalk, as are the surrounding streets. Even the well-trafficked sidewalk along the beach in front of the American Embassy ends abruptly in a giant ditch, while construction equipment operates without traffic detours or pedestrian safety oversight. Given the rate at which even adults are injured while walking, it is not hard to imagine that one of the many children running and playing along the beach may one day take a tragic misstep.
Yet there is little evidence that the government has made a concerted effort to rectify this. The government’s skirmishes into sidewalk rehabilitation have largely focused on ousting illegally parked street vendors and trucks, or small, well-publicized projects—such as Xanana’s one-day tenure managing the reconstruction of a Colmera sidewalk while serving Prime Minister in 2014, or the 2017 construction of concrete slopes leading to the sidewalks in response to criticism from disability rights groups. What is missing is a holistic, comprehensive plan to address the chronic problem of sidewalk breaks and dead overhanging trees: to make Díli safer by beautifying it. And yet, when FM asked pedestrians what they thought about the holes in the sidewalk, the feeling was one of government inattention.
“It makes me very sad,” said security guard Agosto S. “It makes me so sad that the government doesn’t even notice. Students, ordinary people walk along here, and it’s very dangerous for both pedestrians and cars.”
“It’s a dangerous problem—people can trip or fall,” said pedestrian Marcelina B, sighing, referring to the many gaps and tree roots in the sidewalk in front of Parliament. “It makes an impact when tourists come. I would recommend to the government that the relevant minister pays attention.”
Marcelina’s comment is significant in light of Timor-Leste’s increased push for tourism, an initiative that included a $9 million agreement signed with USAID in February of this year. (In a tragically ironic twist, the Director-General of Tourism, Aquilino Santos Caero, was killed with two foreign nationals—one of whom was involved in sustainable tourism promotion—when a tree collapsed across the road in Laklubar, Manatutu, totaling their car.) Not only is tourism viewed as a potential alternative to the country’s dependence on oil, but comes part and parcel with the government’s aggressive pursuit of ASEAN membership, which hopes to capitalize on the flow of people as well as goods—all of which will only be amplified with the August 30th celebrations.
There are occasions where security lies in beauty. Creating a beautiful Díli—one without abrupt holes in the street and sidewalk, one where dead trees are removed promptly and replaced by healthy ones, one where children can run and students can sit in the shade without risk of fatality—means creating a safer Díli. FM calls for a beautiful city, and urges that the government to repair the sidewalks and trees so that pedestrians can walk without fear.
• Conduct a comprehensive survey of pedestrian hazards in Díli municipality, including sidewalk holes, uncovered gutters, and dead trees.
• Remove dead trees and replace with new saplings, both beautifying the city and reducing pedestrian hazards.
• Fill and/or repair holes and breaks in the sidewalk.
• Ideally, work in the center of the city and at the sites of the 20th anniversary ceremonies should be completed by August 30th.
• However, as Díli ultimately belongs to its citizens, sidewalk repair and beautification should not be confined to Díli center or to the celebration period. The government focus should on ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all of its residents, not simply visiting international dignitaries.
• Launch a civilian awareness campaign that a beautiful Díli is a safe Díli.