The Tasi Mane Project is an ambitious government plan which aims to create developmental benefits to Timor-Leste by creating an onshore petroleum industry on the south coast. Since the project began with construction of major infrastructure such as the South Coast Highway and Suai Airport and until today, some community members feel that there has been some general improvement in physical infrastructure. However, many community members living in the project area believe that the Government has not carried out adequate studies to ensure that the project’s social and environmental risks and impacts are addressed, and express dissatisfaction with how the project has violated their rights, including limiting their movement and accessibility. An additional project which started recently is onshore drilling, which is a major concern for communities.
This article focuses on the impacts experienced by communities from state projects in Cova Lima Municipality, particularly the components of the Tasi Mane Project, as well as the recent oil drilling in Feto Kmaus implemented by the Australian-owned company Timor Resources. In this article, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) discusses concerns reported by communities affected by the oil drilling in Matai Suku, including their experiences of discrimination and insecurity, how the Government has approached the issue of protecting vulnerable groups access to land and the benefits the community members have received from the project. The article discusses the knowledge communities have about the projects themselves as well as the government’s ‘socialisation’ and compensation processes. It also discusses the role of community and civil society organisations working on land rights advocacy and land disputes which arise between communities and state authorities.
Benefits and impacts of the Tasi Mane Project
According to FM’s observation, several community members stated that they are pleased by a general improvement in infrastructure in Cova Lima Municipality. For example, roads have been much improved which has enabled easier daily movement for the population. However, affected communities in major project areas feel that they have been excluded from decision making during the project’s implementation. FM also found that communities perceive that from the beginning of the project to its implementation, information about the project was unclear and not informative. Important information was mainly provided to the Municipal Authority, and not to communities. Civil society organisations carrying out monitoring in the affected areas found that local authorities did not provide authorisation or access to information. The recruitment process for project workers was also not transparent or balanced.
The Government and companies did not explain clearly about the environmental risks and social impacts the project would bring to communities, while many community members have lost their land, rice fields and farms. FM observed that community members and civil society organisations involved in land advocacy are dissatisfied with the compensation process, because although compensation has already been paid the amount of money was inadequate to sustain their lives following the loss of their productive land. Consequently, these state projects have severely affected communities’ economic sustainability as well as living space, as their land has been taken over for use by the project.
A further impact identified by a woman’s organisation in Cova Lima relates to cases of gender-based violence and limitations to women’s right to access land. One example involves a (male) state official and a group of women in Dato Tolu Suku, Foheren Post, Cova Lima Municipality. According to the women’s group, these women entered into a land dispute with the state authority during Tasi Mane’s implementation. According to source accessed by FM, this dispute is currently going through the court system and pending continuation. However, the women involved in this dispute have experienced pressure, threats and abuse of power from the state authority, which aims to discourage the women to pursue the case and defend their own right to land.
Highway impacts still not resolved
After the inauguration of the South Coast Highway in 2019, Municipal authorities have expressed their concerns about its limitations to the national authorities, including to the Ministry of Public Works, asking them to find ways to address the project’s impacts on communities’ freedom of movement and the risks this will create in the future. FM conducted research in this area in 2020, and found that communities suffered many negative effects from the highway. The main problem which has not been addressed by the Government until now is that there are no alternative access roads for communities, which is affecting communities’ and students’ ability to access education, health, livelihoods and cultural activities. Most community members in Matai Suku produce their food in the areas surrounding the highway. One bairo is composed of around seventy (70) households which all live around the highway. When they access their fields, water sources and schools, they must cross the highway by passing a metal fence which borders the highway. To do so, communities use wood to make ramps to pass the barrier, while in other places they have simply cut the fence. During group discussions with FM, community members expressed that women and children have had many accidents when crossing the highway, including mothers who have fallen when crossing the metal barrier surrounding the highway.
In addition to the problem of pedestrian access, a major concern from affected communities in Matai Suku is the impact of water draining from the highway on people living next to or near the road. Most of the rainwater on the highway is channelled directly into the community areas. As a result, during rainy season this drainage is damaging community houses, farms and cemeteries. The community provided further information that the fields where they plant corn and other crops are no longer productive due to white earth (rai mutin) being washed from the highway onto the land, which is destroying the land’s fertility. According to the community, during the Finado celebration in November several community members could not find their family members’ graves in Matai cemetery, as the rai mutin had covered them during the heavy rains in April 2021.
Impacts from Suai Airport
Suai Airport, another component of the Tasi Mane Project, was inaugurated in 2017. Unfortunately, since its inauguration there have been no regular flights using the airport, and animals freely enter the runway. Based on a circular from municipal authorities, communities have agreed to take care that their animals do not enter the airport. However, a current community concern is that their animals such as cows and goats have been shot dead by airport security.
The community is concerned that the airport’s gate is open and there is a lack of security, thus cows and goats can easily go inside. Communities also allege that while the circular from municipal authorities decreed that when animals enter the airport and are killed by security, the dead animals will be brought to the Salele shelter, in practice when animals have been killed the security forces have shared the animal amongst themselves. As a result, the community feels dissatisfied and that this is unjust. The situation illustrates the way in which major state projects have often failed to consider communities’ lives, and until today continue to threaten their livelihoods and socio-economic conditions.
Onshore oil drilling
Another ongoing state project of concern is the oil drilling in Quiar Aldeia, Matai Suku. FM’s research in this area found that there are major gaps between the Government, company and affected community. FM’s discussion with community members in three villages (Quiar, Matai and Kunain) revealed that since the first drilling operations at the Feto Kmaus oil well, the community was unsure about the process and explanation about how to manage the oil waste products. Although the Joint Inter-Ministerial Team discussed the environmental impacts with the community, they did not explain about how to store this waste.
In another finding, according to the Cova Lima Network association, although the consultation process was coordinated by the oil company and local authorities, the company has not provided information to the media or communities. As a result, the information provided about the drilling has been insufficient to properly advocate for protection measures for the community. Unfortunately, the Feto Kmaus drilling project has suffered from a lack of transparency, with a high potential for nepotism as the recruitment process was not opened to the public. The Cova Lima Network observed that this process resulted in discrimination in the community, which can potentially create conflict in the future. This process also does not reflect earlier promises that Cova Lima youth and communities would be employed as workers on the project. In reality, community members who participated in FM’s research stated that most workers came from other Municipalities, and only a few local people were employed.
In relation to property rights in the drilling area, the company signed contracts with farmers and provided quarterly payments during two years, with the possibility of extension until 2022. However, FM met with some of these farmers, and found that some were dissatisfied with the contract process as they were not directly involved. We also heard that if the company finds oil, it plans to buy 10mx20m of land, but the company has not yet approached the local farmers. Another issue is that once drilling was completed, the company promised to level the drilled land so that the land can be used again by the community for farming. However, FM notes that there was no discussion from the company regarding the possibility of the land being contaminated in the future, meaning that the land may be unusable for food production.
The company did not provide clear information about the process for dealing with spills of oil waste spills which can damage communities’ fields, and did not allow media or local organisations to access any such information. Thus, FM sees that communities do not have sufficient knowledge about the drilling project which can protect them from its potential negative effects. When FM consulted with women rights NGO Fokupers in Cova Lima, they informed us that during the drilling in Feto Kmaus they have not received any complaints. However, as the organisation which provides assistance to victims of violence in the community, Fokupers plays an important leadership role in the community. They consider that Timor Resources has prevented access to information about community impacts, even though media and civil society organisations have tried to meet with the company to access information about the drilling.
A major impact from the Feto Kmaus drilling project is that of environmental damage and the effect on food production, as the drilling is taking place near the community and their productive land. The waste storage facility actually links directly to a nearby river (the river is 100m from the well, and 300m further is the sea), meaning that the pollution and contamination in the future will likely severely affect the community’s health and food production. This means that the community living near the drilling area faces a major threat to their environment, food security, income, health and nutrition.
This research has identified several major issues which require an urgent re-evaluation of the social and environmental risks and impacts resulting from the Tasi Mane Project, especially the Feto Kmaus drilling project, highway and Suai Airport. The highway is already affecting people’s lives, which will be worse in the future when the highway may be used by more cars if the Government does not resolve the question of alternative access routes.
In addition, women continue to be victimised by the implementation of these state projects due to being excluded from decision making and clear information. The compensation process for land offered by the company did not adequately include local women’s perspectives and needs, and women are thus unhappy with the results, but feel that they cannot speak up and must simply accept the situation as the process has already passed. This lack of participation and inclusion for women illustrates how dissatisfaction and resentment are often created when projects are implemented based on one group’s decision without a broad consensus or adequate inclusion.
From this research, we conclude that the Government has a major responsibility to secure affected communities’ fundamental rights and avoid harming their livelihoods, mobility and environment. It is therefore extremely important to raise communities’ knowledge about the economic and environmental effects of the oil drilling, including both short- and long-term impacts and the right to compensation. The Government must take responsibility to protect the wellbeing of the community over the long-term by providing adequate and sustainable compensation for lost land and livelihoods.