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East Timor News Digest 1 – January 1-31, 2018

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Political parties & elections

Fresh Timor-Leste election may delay border, Sunrise talks

Australian Financial Review - January 28, 2018

Michael Sainsbury – Timor-Leste President Francisco Lu Olo Guterres' move to end a six-month political deadlock and call fresh elections for the second time in nine months comes at an awkward time for the nation's renegotiation of its maritime boundary with Australia.

There is now confusion in the capital Dili over who will sign the agreement, due to be finalised in March under the auspices of a UN court, in the midst of an election campaign expected to stretch into April and possibly May.

A commercial decision by the Sunrise joint venture group comprising Woodside, Conoco-Phillips, Shell and Osaka Gas is also likely to be delayed by the election and subsequent jockeying among the parties to form a government.

Chief negotiator for Timor-Leste in three-way talks between the two countries and the Sunrise joint venture is former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao, leader of the largest opposition party. He now finds himself in a situation where he must finalise the maritime boundaries and continue energy deal talks while fighting an election.

"The settlement of permanent maritime boundaries is in sight," former Labor MP and legal advisor to Timor-Leste on maritime boundaries Janelle Safin told the Australian Financial Review.

"It has been a fault line in our bilateral relationship, despite many positive developments," she said.

The new deal was mandated to be signed by March 2018 by the UN Court of Permanent Arbitration in The Hague after the tiny Asian nation won a court battle with Australia to have the lopsided 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Agreements in the Timor Sea set aside; the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty is now back in force until a new deal is finalised.

A draft agreement was announced in October last year, but the details were not made public and a number of sticking points remain.

In December last year the court said that "the draft treaty delimits the maritime boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia in the Timor Sea and establishes a Special Regime for the area comprising the Greater Sunrise gas field".

"Australia is working in good faith to deliver a comprehensive outcome in the Timor Sea conciliation process by 1 March 2018," a DFAT spokesperson said. "The comprehensive package agreement committed to by both Parties includes a permanent maritime boundary as well as agreement on a pathway to develop the Greater Sunrise resource."

"Both the Government and Opposition in Timor-Leste have expressed support for the maritime boundary agreement that has been reached under the auspices of the UNCLOS [Convention on Law of the Sea] Conciliation Commission."

But Bernard Colleary, the Canberra-based lawyer who ran the case for Timor-Leste in The Hague, has argued that the new deal is still compromised.

"The best deal for Timor-Leste is for it to secure its full sovereign rights without any compromise over location of pipelines or revenue sharing," Colleary told the AFR.

"Every time it has compromised it has struck a poor deal. Being told to compromise because Timor-Leste will run out of money in the future is a poisonous atmosphere in which to be signing a deal.

The final shape of the maritime boundaries deal can be crafted without the specifics of the commercial development of the resource-rich Greater Sunrise basin, which contains 5.13 Tcf of gas and 225.9 MMbbl of condensate.

"The deal on the table will not be derailed by commercial considerations," a person familiar with the talks said. Indeed the joint venture is understood to be less concerned about the final maritime boundaries and more worried about the fiscal certainty that the boundary deal will bring, as the final shape of the development proposal.

The primary concern there is where the pipeline lands. While the joint venture company wants Darwin, Gusmao is continuing to push for Timor-Leste' south coast, an option Woodside has said may be uneconomic. Once this is decided the development platform must pass the commercial test.

"The draft treaty also establishes revenue-sharing arrangements where the shares of upstream revenue allocated to each of the Parties will differ depending on downstream benefits associated with the different development concepts for the Greater Sunrise gas field," the UN court said.

According to the Timor-Leste Constitution, any maritime deal must be signed by the president and ratified by the Timor-Leste parliament (as well as the Australian parliament). That is unlikely to be settled until mid-year.

Source: http://www.afr.com/news/world/asia/fresh-timorleste-election-may-delay-border-sunrise-talks-20180128-h0pj90

East Timor dissolves Parliament in effort to solve political

Sydney Morning Herald - January 26, 2018

Lindsay Murdoch, Bangkok – East Timor's Parliament has been dissolved and fresh elections called to end a political impasse that has paralysed Australia's north-western neighbour for months.

President Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres announced the dissolving of Parliament on Friday, saying "only the people can help us out of the impasse".

"All go and vote again to strengthen our democracy," he said, stressing that consensus must take priority over individual interests.

The decision forces Guterres' political ally and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to go back to the polls only months after his Fretilin, the former revolutionary party, narrowly won the most seats in July.

Under the country's constitution Alkatiri remains caretaker prime minister until the election.

A three-party opposition alliance had refused to pass the Fretilin-led government's budgets and programs, forcing Guterres to intervene.

The President could have invited the second largest party – the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction led by former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao – to form government, with two other smaller opposition parties.

But Alkatiri, who claimed in December opposition parties were attempting to stage a coup, wanted Parliament dissolved and fresh elections called.

Voters are expected to go to the polls in the staunchly Catholic nation after Easter.

At the centre of the fractious standoff are Alkatiri and Gusmao, the country's two most dominating political figures who have had bitter fallings out in the past.

Gusmao, a wily political operator and hero of East Timor's struggle for independence, has wielded the most power behind the scenes while leading his country's negotiations with Australia on a Timor Sea maritime boundary and sharing arrangements for the $50 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field.

As political tensions have risen Gusmao has stayed out of the country, prompting many Timorese to ask what role he would play in any political resolution. Analysts say without his approval of a new government political uncertainty will remain.

Professor Michael Leach, an expert on East Timor from Swinburne University of Technology, told Fairfax Media there was a strong chance the three opposition parties would form a pre-election coalition which would make them a formidable electoral force.

"Fretilin has promised to take its government program directly to the people in a campaign after it failed to gain parliamentary support," he said.

Leach said despite the political ructions East Timorese society remained calm.

"That said the 2018 parliamentary elections could prove a far tenser affair than the election last year which occurred in the wake of an unprecedented era of major party cooperation," he said.

"In previous elections cross-party agreements have sought to minimise inflammatory campaigning and many people in Timor-Leste [East Timor] hope to see the same again."

The former Indonesian-occupied territory hasn't had a functioning administration for months and the coffers of state agencies were starting to run dry with the government's failure to pass a budget.

There have been no street protests unlike 2006 when mobs rioted across Dili, prompting intervention by Australian troops.

Many social media users expressed relief at the decision to return to the polls.

In recent days, Guterres met with political party leaders and other influential figures, including those from the Catholic church.

The political uncertainty could delay ratification of the landmark agreement to develop billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

East Timor and Australia are set to sign in March a treaty on maritime boundary that has been negotiated under UN supervision at The Hague, ending years of bitter disagreement that strained ties between the neighbours.

Any new government in Dili will have to ratify it. Details of the agreement have not been made public.

Gusmao has demanded that any development of Greater Sunrise involve an offshore LNG processing plant on in a remote part of East Timor, which he envisages becoming an industrial hub.

But the field's joint-venture partners, led by Woodside Petroleum, say bringing the gas ashore to East Timor across a deep undersea trench is uneconomic.

They want to exploit the reserves through a floating LNG platform or pipe the gas to an existing LNG plant in Darwin.

Gusmao is tipped to head a new authority to oversee the Greater Sunrise development, which is critical to East Timor's future as existing joint gas fields with Australia run dry in the next few years.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/east-timor-dissolves-parliament-in-effort-to-solve-political-standoff-20180126-p4yyx3.html

East Timor president calls for new election to end impasse

Reuters - January 26, 2018

Nelson Da Cruz, Dili – East Timor President Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres said on Friday he will dissolve parliament and call new elections in a bid to end a prolonged political impasse in the tiny country since polls last year.

The 2017 election produced no clear winner, with the Fretilin party of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri winning just 0.2 per cent more votes than the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the party of independence hero Xanana Gusmao.

Guterres asked Alkatiri, a political ally, to form government but a legislative stalemate ensued after a CNRT-led coalition, with the majority of seats in parliament, refused to pass his programme.

The standoff led to Alkatiri accusing the opposition of an attempted coup, while the CNRT's coalition described the government as unconstitutional.

"Only the people can help solve the new challenges we face. Humbly, the president asks the people to vote again in fresh elections," Guterres told reporters.

The president said the election date would be determined according to regulations in the constitution.

Damien Kingsbury, an Australia-based East Timor expert who will act as an international observer, said it would take place in April at the earliest.

East Timor's legislature will still function until the election date is set and campaigning begins.

Even so, the political ructions could delay any ratification of an agreement between Australia and East Timor over an estimated $40 billion in oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

A new agreement on the maritime boundary was due to be signed in March, although negotiations are continuing.

As well as an agreed sea border, East Timor wants the oil and gas to be processed at a facility on its southern coastline, a proposal that has been resisted by the joint venture with development rights over the field led by Woodside Petroleum.

Kingsbury said the political rhetoric of recent months was "highly inflammatory and confrontational".

Police raided the premises of Gusmao's daughter, Zenilda Gusmao, last week in relation to alleged unpaid taxes, according to media reports. The government denied the raid was politically motivated.

The new election could stoke tensions further, although Kingsbury noted that the military and police remained largely disciplined and neutral.

East Timor has been unsettled by bouts of violence and political instability since it became independent from Indonesia in 2002. Members of the military and police mutinied in 2006.

"The question is whether the parties can control their members. I am sure they have the will to do so but whether they can (remains uncertain)," Kingsbury said.

The CNRT and its partners could run as a unified coalition, which some observers believe would see them as favourites to win the new election.

Senior CNRT leader Aderito Hugo said by phone the president needed to better explain his reasons for dissolving parliament before the party would accept it.

Luis Roberto from KHUNTO, a junior member of the opposition coalition, said his party would "obey" the president's decision.

[Additional reporting by Tom Allard; Writing by Tom Allard and Ed Davies; Editing by Paul Tait.]

Source: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-timor-politics/east-timor-president-calls-for-new-election-to-end-impasse-idUKKBN1FF07U

Political stalemate in East Timor prompts fresh elections

Nikkei Asian Review - January 26, 2018

Simon Roughneen, Jakarta – East Timor will hold parliamentary elections for the second time in a year after President Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres today dissolved the hung parliament that ensued after 2017's inconclusive vote.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's Fretilin party narrowly won the most seats in last year's elections, but Fretilin's attempts at passing legislation and a budget have been stymied by the opposition camp.

President Guterres' announcement comes after Alkatiri alleged that the opposition – led by independence hero Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction – was trying to foment a coup last year.

Guterres had the option of inviting Gusmao, himself a former president and prime minister, to try to form a replacement administration. The chance that Guterres, a Fretlin die-hard, would choose this route was always slim.

"There is just no way they were ever going to hand over the government on a plate to Gusmao," said James Scambary of Australian National University. "Lu Olo is Fretilin through and through and very loyal to Alkatiri, so he was not going to let that happen."

The voting date has not been announced, but the election is likely to take place shortly after Easter, the most significant event on the Catholic calendar. East Timor is one of Asia's two Catholic-majority countries, a legacy from its three centuries as a Portuguese colony before Indonesia invaded in 1975. The Philippines is the other.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 led to the downfall of Indonesian dictator Suharto. In 1999, Indonesia withdrew from East Timor, paving the way for eventual independence in 2002.

But Indonesian-backed mobs destroyed most of East Timor in 1999, leaving the country dependent on natural resources such as gas and coffee as well as huge amounts of international aid.

In 2017, East Timor and Australia agreed to finalize a maritime boundary – a move that could give East Timor access to more gas in the Timor Sea and offset concerns that East Timor will soon run out of money as existing energy reserves are depleted.

Dismissing concerns that the administrative stand-off could lead to a repeat of East Timor's 2006 and 2008 bouts of civil conflict and in turn jeopardize recent economic gains, former President Jose Ramos-Horta said the fresh elections are a sign of a functioning democracy and are needed to sort out the impasse.

"There is no crisis," Ramos-Horta said. "The country is very peaceful, not a single incident of political violence." Ramos-Horta was wounded in a 2008 assassination attempt.

Source: https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Policy-Politics/Political-stalemate-in-East-Timor-prompts-fresh-elections

Timor-Leste president risks impeachment if election called

UCA News - January 25, 2018

Michael Sainsbury and Thomas Ora, Dili Timor-Leste – Timor-Leste's embattled Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has backed fresh elections, increasing the chances of a new poll being called in the wake of last July's election that has triggered political gridlock.

President Francisco Guterres Lu Olo has until July 31, when parliament is due to sit, to break the six-month political deadlock or the opposition will use its numbers to vote out the government on the floor of the legislature.

On Jan. 23, he consulted with each of the five parties represented in parliament at the Presidential Palace in Dili. The following day he convened the advisory State Council, a 17-person group of political elders and military representatives.

Lu Olo is now expected to announce his decision at 10am on July 26 but in bowing to the PM's demands he runs the risk of triggering legal challenges by opposition parties or other civil groups "or even impeachment," Martin Hardie, a partner at Dili-based legal and consulting firm Watugari Coelho, told ucanews.com.

Lu Olo was elected in a separate poll in March 2018 with the backing of senior opposition figures.

Lu Olo's other choice is to dismiss Alkatiri, who leads the Fretilin-led minority government coalition and whose party won the most seats, 23, in last year's July poll by a margin of just one seat, but this path risks turmoil within the nation's storied freedom-fighting movement turned political powerhouse.

Alkatiri, who was the country's first prime minister from 2002 to 2006, failed to cobble together a working majority after the 2018 election where Fretilin squeaked ahead of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party, its coalition partner in the previous government.

This has meant the coalition government, which also includes the Democratic Party, has filed to have the crucial government program bill, a precursor to any budget, passed by the legislature.

If Alkatiri and his government are sacked, Lu Olo, also a member of Fretilin, would be forced to invited the party's main rival, the CNRT party led by the nation's former president, prime minister and senior statesman Xanana Gusmao to form a government.

CNRT, which has 22 seats in the parliament (only one less than Fretilin), has the backing of two smaller opposition parties that contested elections for the first time in 2017 the People's Liberation Party (PLP), headed by 2012-17 President Taur Matan Ruak and which has eight seats, and KHUNTO, a team of political novices that picked up five seats.

Opposition figures believe that Lu Olo's other course will be to appoint Gusmao as PM despite the fact he has publicly said he did not want the post once more.

Dionicio Babo Soares, president of the national council of CNRT, told ucanews.com that he hoped that the president will provide an opportunity to his party. In parliament election last year, Fretilin gained 23 seats, CNRT 22 seats, PLP eight seats, Democrats seven seats and KHUNTO five seats.

"CNRT suggests that the president if possible give the chance to the second winner during the last election," Soares said Jan. 23.

Similarly, Jose Agustinho, secretary general of KHUNTO, said the president should give a chance to the second winner, CNRT

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, also secretary-general of Fretilin, said his party prefers a fresh election to let people determine the outcome. "But we will respect whatever the president decides," Alkatiri told local media.

Taur Matan Ruak told media after meeting the president on Jan. 23 that his party will support any decision made by the president

"We have told the president that he should make any decision whatever it is to solve the current political crisis. PLP will support whatever the president will decide."

"If the president decides on a fresh election, PLP is prepared to follow it," he said on Jan. 24

Independent commentators are wary of fresh elections and some believe the government and president have behaved illegally.

Until the minority government has its program and budget passed by parliament, it is only a caretaker government, said Hardie, who is also Francisco Xavier do Amaral professorial fellow at the University of Dili and a senior lecturer in law at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.

"The president of the Republic in East Timor has a strong entrenched constitutional independence from the other branches of government. He is not like, for example, a head of state in a Westminster democracy that acts on the advice of the PM," Hardie said.

"There seems no doubt that the PM and the president of the parliament (the equivalent of the Westminster speaker) have colluded in order to prevent parliament from sitting, as required by law, for the best part of two months.

"This was a device designed by the PM to stop parliament from considering a censure motion, which would have resulted in the majority opposition forming a government, and to string out the process in order to trigger an early election."

Hardie said this was done in breach of the parliament's own regulations. "The president of the parliament was being reckless with the truth when he said yesterday that he had not obstructed parliament from sitting. This is exactly what he and the PM did," he said.

"If, as alleged by some, the PM has written for the president the orders dissolving parliament, and calling an early election, the result would be a total destruction of the separation of powers entrenched in the constitution.

"The president would not appear to be acting at his own behest but under the dictation of the PM. In such a situation the president would open himself up to future charges of impeachment if the majority opposition was successful at any early election," he added.

"The problem the president faces is that his future in politics may well be decided by the decision he takes this week."

Grassroots' reaction

Father Martinho Gusmao, philosophy professor at St. Peters and Paul Seminary in Dili, said that while he believes that the president has all criteria fulfilled to have an early election under the constitution "from a moral and democratic" viewpoint for the "struggling democracy in Timor-Leste," the idea of early election is the worst ever.

"An early election is the last resource to solve the problem. It is like cardiac arrest. To save the heart, if you can do massage, do the massage, not the surgery," said Father Gusmao.

"I think they should renegotiate, all parties involved. The constitution allows this. If Fretilin and CNRT renegotiate, particularly Xanana (Gusmao) and Alkatiri, the problem of the country will be solved," he said.

He warned that in a new election most likely there will be strong political absenteeism. "The people will think like this: we have chosen you for a certain post, and you don't match our dream, do not solve the problem, you have failed us. Now you come back and ask us to choose you again... it means we choose a problem."

Source: https://www.ucanews.com/news/timor-leste-president-risks-impeachment-if-election-called/81345

Timor-Leste opposition cries foul as impasse nears resolution

UCA News - January 22, 2018

Michael Sainsbury and Thomas Ora, Dili – Timor-Leste's president has convened a meeting of the troubled Catholic Asian nation's State Council for Jan. 24 that is expected to help determine whether the country gets either a new prime minister or faces fresh elections.

Only 10 months have elapsed since the last poll. But Timor-Leste's minority government Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri appears to have already begun campaigning, indicating fresh elections could be announced within days to break a six-month political stalemate.

The embattled PM, who has not been able to garner a majority of votes to support his government program, the centerpiece of Timor-Leste political policy since the July 22 election, is also facing claims from the opposition that his Fretilin party has blocked proper processes in order allow for his removal.

Parliament president Aniceto Gutteres, the house speaker who convenes parliament and is supposed to convene it at least two days a week, has failed to do so since before Christmas, according to Fidelis Magalhaes, parliamentary head of the opposition People's Liberation Party (PLP).

This means that Alkatiri's government cannot face any no-confidence motion brought by a united three-party opposition, led by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party of former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao and also including the PLP and the Khunto party. The combined opposition has a majority of votes in the 65-seat parliament.

Margalhaes said the strategy of Fretilin, via the speaker, was to make sure the critical date of Jan. 22, six months after the election, was reached - at this point, under the constitution, the president can dissolve parliament and call new elections, at a cost of about US $40 million. The speaker had successfully delayed the plenary sessions in parliament.

Under Timor-Leste's Portuguese-style constitution, the government must present its program to parliament. This forms the basis of any subsequent budgets. Alkatiri presented his program in September and it was voted down. A second no will automatically result in the dissolution of parliament, giving the president no choice but to dismiss the prime minister.

But Alkatiri has avoided bringing the vote on a second time and no government can get a full budget without the government program voted "yes." In the week before Christmas, the prime minister tried to get some funding measures through before Christmas and failed. The opposition is playing hard ball by voting everything down and keen to force Lu Olo's hand.

In the meantime, Alkatiri visited the people in Maubara, Liquica district, on Jan. 19 and presented his administration's program rejected by the national parliament.

He told the people that since the parliament rejected his programs there is tug of war between the government and the parliament, but that is democracy.

"[However] in democracy, whoever has been in power, whether it is five, ten or more than 10 years, cannot seek to come to power again because it will hamper [the] development process," Alkatiri said as quoted by Suara Timor Lorosae on Jan.19.

Alkatiri reminded people to wait for the decision from President Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo this week.

The government was supposed to have submitted another program within 30 days since it was rejected in October last year. But it never happened. Instead, the government came up with a budget rectification bill.

The opposition parties in parliament accused parliament speaker Aniceto Gutteres of preventing the prime minister of presenting the programs to the parliament. They also accused Gutteres of boycotting a plenary session aimed to discuss and vote on the government program.

However, Gutterres denied the allegations, saying that things did not go as expected because everything was under the control of the opposition.

"I don't boycott the parliament. It is impossible because all the commissions are under their control. All commission presidents and deputies are in their hands," Gutterres told reporters on Jan. 18 as quoted by Suara Timor Lorosae.

Magalhaes also voiced concerned about the timing of a raid by police last week.

Source: https://www.ucanews.com/news/timor-leste-opposition-cries-foul-as-impasse-nears-resolution/81317

Political crisis threatens Timor-Leste's future

UCA News - January 19, 2018

Michael Sainsbury, Dili – Timor-Leste's constitutional crisis, due to come to a head on Jan. 22, could take weeks to solve with a range of options in terms of consultation and final decisions available to President Francisco Guterres Lu Olo.

The crisis, which has seen the Fretilin-led minority government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiriunable to pass policy programs or any budget bills, is now threatening the tiny country's fragile economy.

Timor Leste has now been without an effective government since the holding of five-yearly elections on July 22 last year, but under the constitution the president, who is the sole arbiter of what happens next, cannot dissolve parliament until six months after the election - Jan. 22, 2018.

Constitutional lawyer Manuel Tilman, who helped draft the Timor-Leste Constitution told ucanews.com that Lu Olo has a range of options and opportunities to prevent upheavals and the lengthy process that fresh elections would involve.

"After Jan. 22 he can meet the five parties represented in parliament one by one and ask them if they have any solutions to offer... This is the path that I believe he should take," Tilman said.

But while, officially, the next steps rest with the president the reality is that Timor-Leste's elder statesman Xanana Gusmao - a former president and prime minister and effective leader of the opposition - as head of the CNRT, the largest party in the three party united opposition, still holds much sway over final decision making.

Gusmao had expected his party to emerge the strongest under Timor-Leste's proportional representation system and enable it to form a coalition, however it lost out by a small margin to Fretilin.

The power balance is further complicated by the fact that Lu Olo is also a member of Fretilin.

Initially, Alkatiri appeared to have secured a parliamentary majority with the inclusion of new party KHUNTO which unexpectedly won five seats - a sign of dissatisfaction amongst voters with traditional parties and widespread corruption in the political class that saw eight members of the former parliament sentenced to jail, Tilman noted.

KHUNTO, however, walked away from the government only days before its was due to be sworn in after its push for senior positions was rejected by Alkatiri and a Fretilin representative was appointed as president of the parliament - the country's number three political post, a KHUNTO party source told ucanews.com.

"Xanana was [unexpectedly] beaten in the election so it seems he has stayed away with the view of 'you didn't vote for me now figure this out yourselves'," Tilman said.

Gusmao has also been tied up with negotiations with Australia over a fresh deal on oil and gas revenues - and where the gas will be processed, in Australia or Timor-Leste - from the Timor Gap, the stretch of disputed ocean between Australia and Timor-Leste.

On Jan. 18 police raided the premises of Gusmao's daughter Zenilda Gusmao and froze all her assets after what some described as an "accumulation of assets." It is remains unclear what this may mean.

After consulting with political parties, the president can then consult with the State Council, an advisory group consisting of the current and former prime ministers, parliament president, former president and the head of the army - a group numbering 17 people.

"But none of these consultations are binding and there is no time limit on the president's decision," Tilman said.

But he said there was an urgent need to resolve the situation as there were no government budget funds approved. "This could mean that public servants, including the police, army, teachers and doctors will stop getting paid," he said.

Any new election cannot be held for 60 days and, realistically, until May due to Lent and Easter preventing electioneering in a country that is 96 percent Catholic.

Critics have said that Timor-Leste has been wrapped up in personality politics for too long and that there can be no fundamental change until the old guard goes and lets a new generation of politicians take charge.

Source: https://www.ucanews.com/news/political-crisis-threatens-timor-lestes-future/81300

East Timor's minority government could fall within days

Sydney Morning Herald - January 14, 2018

Lindsay Murdoch – Only four months after taking office East Timor's minority government is set to fall, possibly within days, amid tense political manoeuvrings in Australia's nearest north-western neighbour.

Uncertainty about the make up of a new government could delay ratification of a landmark agreement to develop billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

The government led by Mari Alkatiri from the one-time revolutionary party Fretilin faces a second vote of no confidence in its programs from a three-party opposition alliance which holds a majority of seats in Parliament.

Alkatiri has attempted to delay the vote, claiming opposition parties are attempting to stage a coup, as money for government programs rapidly runs out.

Defeat in the vote would automatically trigger the government's fall. President Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, who is aligned with Fretilin, could dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections to be held within months.

Guterres could also invite the second largest party – the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction led by former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao – to form government, with two other smaller opposition parties.

At the centre of the fractious stand-off are Alkatiri and Gusmao, the country's two most dominating political figures who have had bitter fallings out in the past.

Gusmao, a wily political operator and hero of East Timor's struggle for independence, has wielded the most power behind the scenes while leading his country's negotiations with Australia on a Timor Sea maritime boundary and sharing arrangements for the $50 billion Greater Sunrise oil and gas field.

As political tensions have risen Gusmao has stayed out of the country, prompting many Timorese to ask what role he will play in any political resolution. Analysts say without his approval of a new government political uncertainty will remain.

Professor Michael Leach, an expert on East Timor from Swinburne University of Technology, said the impasse has brought to the fore lingering divisions between resistance figures during the independence struggle and leaders who remained outside East Timor during Indonesia's 22-year occupation.

Some local newspapers have used this potentially divisive theme openly in headlines. Leach said while some East Timorese see a personality clash between Alkatiri and Gusmao, many see a deeper clash about the type of government and which parties should be included.

"Despite the political ructions, East Timorese society remains largely calm," he said.

"Leaving aside the return of a more belligerent form of democracy and the accusations of an institutional coup, this political standoff demonstrates that the checks and balances in the constitutional system are operating, with strong accountability to Parliament."

In March, East Timor and Australia are set to sign a treaty on maritime boundary that has been negotiated under UN supervision at The Hague, ending years of bitter disagreement that strained ties between the neighbours.

Any new government in Dili will have to ratify it. Details of the agreement have not been made public.

Over years Gusmao has demanded that any development of the Greater Sunrise involve an offshore LNG processing plant on a remote part of East Timor, which he envisages becoming an industrial hub.

But the field's joint venture partners, led by Woodside Petroleum, say bringing the gas ashore to East Timor across a deep undersea trench is uneconomic.

They want to exploit the reserves through a floating LNG platform or pipe the gas to an existing LNG plant in Darwin.

Gusmao is tipped to head a new authority to oversee Greater Sunrise's development, which is critical to East Timor's future as existing joint gas fields with Australia run dry in the next few years.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/east-timor-s-minority-government-on-to-fall-within-days-20180114-p4yygv.html

Timor-Leste's young government teeters on collapse

UCA News - January 3, 2018

Michael Sainsbury, Phnom Penh and Thomas Ora, Dili – Timor-Leste has lurched into a constitutional crisis after Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's minority government failed to pass key legislation, including a fresh budget bill, in the week before Christmas.

Asia's most Catholic nation is facing the prospect of a new government, or a second election inside nine months, as the country's parliament remains in gridlock after the July 22 poll failed to deliver a workable majority in parliament.

Alkatiri's Fretlin Party, which won the most seats in the election, and its coalition partner, the Democratic Party, hold 30 seats in the 65-seat legislature and must rely on the support of opposition MPs to have legislation passed.

Alkatiri who replaced party colleague Rui Maria de Araujo as PM following the July 22 election, had originally stitched together a workable majority coalition.

But only days ahead of being sworn in, the coalition's third partner, Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto), walked away taking with it its five seats and Alkatiri's majority.

Alkatiri, a Muslim in a country that is more than 90 percent Catholic, was forced to step down in 2006 before his term as the nation's first ever prime minister was complete.

During a televised press conference from Singapore on Nov. 19, Timor-Leste's opposition leaders assured the public that they were prepared to take over the leadership.

The broadcast featured the country's elder statesman and former president and prime minister Xanana Gusmao who was accompanied by Taur Matan Ruak, president of Popular Liberation Party (PLP) and Jose do Santos Naimori of Khunto Party.

"If the president gives us the responsibility to lead the country out of the current crisis, we will take it," Gusmao said.

Alkatiri refused to convene parliament and claimed the opposition was trying to stage a coup, despite the fact that it is the president who swears in parliament.

Australian academic Damien Kingsbury has described it as a "government of national disunity" and Alkatiri as having a "controlling political style."

Gusmao has been negotiating a new treaty with Australia over the spoils of the estimated A$50 billion ($US39 billion) maritime oil and gas reserves in the so-called Greater Sunrise deposit in the waters between the two nations.

He has not been in the country and it's widely considered that his presence is needed for the political impasse to either be resolved or the government dissolved.

What happens next is now very much with President Francisco Guterres, a Fretilin colleague of Alkatiri.

Manuel Tilman, a Timor-Leste lawyer, agreed saying a political crisis would be precipitated if the government's program is rejected by parliament again.

"This is in line with Article 112 of the constitution. If the government's program is denied for a second consecutive time the government will fall," Tilman told ucanews.com

Under Article 112, according to Tilman, President Guterres will have to consider how to form a new government if the current one is disbanded.

Options include offering it to Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) who gained the second largest amount of votes in the July 22 polls, or forming a "national unity" government.

If the dialogue between the political elites fails, the president can dissolve the national parliament as early as Jan. 22, Tilman said.

"The election could be in April 2018, but since that date coincides with Lent and Easter in the deeply Catholic nation, it is most likely to be in May 2018," he added.

In the event of early elections in May, Timor-Leste could experience a financial crisis because the state budget has not been approved.

"I will make decisions according to the constitution so as not to burden the people and there will be no blood or injury, let alone deaths," President Guterres said Dec. 4.

Further complicating matters was the Dec. 26 announcement, Australia and East Timor will sign a new treaty this year setting maritime boundaries in an effort to settle lingering disputes over lucrative oil and gas fields in the East Timor Sea.

The new treaty would be signed in March according to a directive from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. But this needs the ratification of parliament which, by then, may be dissolved. Timor-Leste's parliament is due to reconvene on Jan. 8.

Timor-Leste officially declared independence in 2002 after 24 years under Indonesian rule. But fifteen years after independence it continues to struggle to cope with poverty, lack of education and health services.

Source: https://www.ucanews.com/news/timor-lestes-young-government-teeters-on-collapse/81160

Border & security issues

Indonesia, Timor Leste jointly build border bridges

Xinhua - January 22, 2018

Jakarta – Indonesia and Timor Leste have cooperated in building and reconstructing border bridges linking the two countries, an Indonesian official said on Monday.

Hadrianus Bambang, senior official of public works department in Kupang of East Nusa Tenggara province, said that the major work will be the construction of a bridge in Mota Ain of Kupang in Belu district.

The bridge, located near a main checking post, will facilitate the residence in the two nations, said Bambang. "The two nations have undertaken bilateral talks over the construction of the bridges since years ago," he said.

The official stressed that Indonesian Public Work and Housing Ministry would reconstruct other bridges connecting the two nations. Indonesia and Timor Leste have reached agreements on cooperation in economy among others.

Source: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/22/c_136915375.htm

Foreign affairs & trade

Minister of Timor Leste rejects US blockade to Cuba

Prensa Latina - January 4, 2018

Dili – Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Timor Leste, Aurelio Guterres, expressed his solidarity with the Cuban people and government, and hopes for the end of the commercial and financial economic blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba.

In a letter addressed to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, the minister stated that, as a member of the United Nations Organization, Timor Leste warns of the need to end that measure, to safeguard the rights of Cubans and access to the necessary goods.

As a sign of the principles of reciprocity and good relations, Timor Leste expresses its support for the people and opposition to the blockade of the US government, he added.

The US blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba since February 7, 1962 and converted into law in 1992 and 1995, is considered a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of the human rights of the Cuban people and qualifies as an act of genocide.

At the same time, this policy constitutes the greatest obstacle to the implementation of the country's National Economic and Social Development Plan, and to the development in general of all the potentialities of the economy.

Source: http://www.plenglish.com/index.php?o=rn&id=22887&SEO=minister-of-timor-leste-rejects-us-blockade-to-cuba

Analysis & opinion

Political deadlock augurs ill for Timor Leste

Asia Times - January 9, 2018

David Hutt – Last year, Timor Leste was held up as a shining example of democratic progress after staging two successful elections after years of volatile and often violent politics. But a post-election constitutional crisis driven by political elite rivalries is putting the young nation to a new crucial test.

Last July, Fretilin and the National Congress of Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the country's two largest political parties, won a combined majority at the parliamentary poll. Fretilin won 29.6% of the vote, accounting for 23 of the unicameral parliament's 65 seats, while the CNRT ran a close second with 29.4% and 22 seats.

Many expected the two parties to continue their informal power-sharing arrangement that began in 2015 when CNRT chief and former independence leader Xanana Gusmao stepped down as prime minister and chose a Fretilin minister as his successor.

At the time, both agreed to put aside historical differences to form a "national unity" government, ushering in two years of political stability.

But shortly after July's election CNRT announced it would not join Fretilin in a new coalition. This came as a surprise to many, including Mari Alkatiri, Fretilin's secretary-general, who publicly predicted before the polls that the unity government would remain in place.

CNRT's move meant poll winner Fretilin needed another ten seats to form a 33-seat majority government. But only the Democratic Party agreed to join, taking Fretilin's total seats up to 30, and the two announced they would form a minority government.

President Francisco Guterres, who won election last March and serves as Fretilin's president, accepted the arrangement and Alkatiri was named prime minister.

But when parliament reconvened in October, three opposition parties – CNRT, People's Liberation Party (PLP) and Khunto – decided to form what they called a "parliamentary majority alliance", provocatively the name given to another CNRT-backed coalition that took power in 2007.

Together, the alliance holds a 35-seat majority in parliament. Days later, the minority government put forward its political program in parliament, which was rejected by the opposition coalition. Timor Leste's constitution rules that if a government's program is rejected twice then the government should be dissolved.

The minority government refused to hold parliamentary sessions during most of November and December, a move the opposition called "unconstitutional" since the government is obligated to resubmit its program to parliament within 30 days of it first being dismissed. In response, Alkatiri said the opposition coalition was trying to orchestrate a "coup."

In December, the opposition alliance again voted down the Fretilin-led government's program, triggering a constitutional crisis and another possible general election in the months ahead.

The causes behind the country's latest political crisis are debatable. It is not unusual for Timor Leste's political parties to fail to gain a majority in parliament, a situation usually resolved by forming a majority alliance with other parties.

CNRT's decision to stop backing a "unity" government with Fretilin seemingly came out of the blue. Indeed, CNRT publicly supported Fretilin's presidential candidate, Guterres, only a few months before the parliamentary polls.

Damien Kingsbury, professor of international politics at Australia's Deakin University, contends this is due to recharged enmity between Alkatiri and Gusmao, the two parties' chiefs. "What Timor-Leste has witnessed is a clash of egos more than a clash of policy or ideology," he recently wrote.

During the 2006 crisis, where intra-military dissent sparked widespread violence that forced then premier Alkatiri to resign, many suspected Gusmao had a hand in the unrest. But the two leaders' mutual hostility lay dormant during the "unity" government.

Another explanation contends that political elites thought Alkatiri's desire for power came at the expense of the national good. When Gusmao resigned as prime minister in 2015, he chose Fretilin's Rui Maria de Araujo to succeed him.

Araujo, in his fifties, was supposed to represent a shift away from the older, independence-era leaders who have dominated Timor Leste's politics since independence from Indonesia was achieved in 2002.

"Alkatiri... broke the understanding he had with Gusmao that [the premiership] would be handed to a younger politician," Kingsbury wrote.

What happens next is anyone's guess. Now that the minority government has twice failed to pass its program in parliament, Guterres must either call for new elections or ask another party to try to form a government.

There are rumors that CNRT might try to push its own attempt at governing with the support of its coalition partners, ensuring a majority in parliament despite placing second at last July's election.

But most analysts expect Guterres will call for a new election when parliament reconvenes later this month. Constitutionally, parliament cannot be dissolved until January 22, or six months after the last elections.

Due to various timing issues, including the Easter holiday in the Catholic-majority nation, that could mean the country is without a functioning government for at least five months.

The country currently does not have a budget in place for 2018, which some suggest could precipitate a financial crisis or paralyze the public sector. Until a new budget is passed the state must stick to the 2017 budget, which is badly under-allocated.

Moreover, a lengthy political vacuum could jeopardize the newly agreed bilateral treaty between Timor Leste and Australia over maritime borders and ownership of vast off-shore energy reserves. The treaty requires ratification later this year by Timor Leste's parliament.

The new uncertainty has cast a cloud over the country's politics after fair, free and peaceful elections, the first that did not require United Nations supervision. Voter turnout was around 75%, a clear sign Timorese have bought into democracy.

International monitoring groups, meanwhile, recently ranked Timor Leste as Southeast Asia's most democratic nation.

Now, some fear a return of the political violence last seen in 2006, a murderous outbreak that saw foreign peacekeepers deployed to restore order. For others, it is another indication of the dominance of fractious political elites that many thought and hoped was on the wane.

The possible upcoming elections are "unlikely to reflect the peace and harmony that characterized those of 2017," Kingsbury predicted.

Yet when compared to events elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the country's current political crisis still looks rather tame. So far there are no indications that that an unconstitutional seizure of power is on the cards by either the government or opposition.

Alkatiri said late last year that "while some dance in parliament, we shall dance on the streets," a comment interpreted as a threat to use street protests to counter the opposition coalition's rejection of its governing program.

Concerns of new violence were eased somewhat when Lere Anan Timur, commander of Timor Leste's defense force, said he would not tolerate any groups that try to stir instability.

No major public protests have been held, yet. And by most accounts the current constitutional crisis is still likely to be solved legally rather than through force. While Timorese voters may have to spend another day at the ballot box in the months ahead, it's a preferable scenario to new rounds of deadly duels in the streets.

Source: http://www.atimes.com/article/political-deadlock-augurs-ill-timor-leste/

Timor-Leste's parliamentary endgame

Inside Story - January 5, 2018

Michael Leach – Nearly six months after an election that left Timorese politics in a state of protracted uncertainty, the manoeuvrings in the young nation's parliament seem likely to reach their endpoint next week.

Last month the Fretilin-led minority government failed to pass a budget rectification measure needed to fund new ministries and programs. The rejection doesn't itself threaten the government, but the opposition Parliamentary Majority Alliance, or AMP, has also tabled a motion of no-confidence that could be heard as early as 8 January, when parliament resumes. If it's passed, the government will fall.

The political standoff emerged on 19 October when three opposition parties – CNRT, PLP and Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nacional Timor Oan, or KHUNTO, together controlling thirty-five of parliament's sixty-five seats – rejected the government's program. Fretilin had narrowly won the most seats, twenty-three to CNRT's twenty-two, in the parliamentary elections last July. While a Fretilin-led coalition with smaller parties seemed likely after CNRT resolved to sit on the opposition benches, Fretilin's negotiations with the PLP (eight seats) and KHUNTO (five) eventually faltered, though not before a short-lived alliance with PD (seven seats) and KHUNTO saw Fretilin's Aniceto Guterres elected president (or speaker) of parliament.

Ultimately, Fretilin formed a thirty-seat minority coalition with the Democratic Party, or PD. On 16 September, with no alternative majority coalition being proposed, president Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, also from Fretilin, appointed the first minority government in Timor-Leste's short constitutional history. The executive was bolstered by some well-regarded independents, including Jose Ramos-Horta, and a scattering of ministers affiliated with other parties.

The AMP didn't announce its alliance until four weeks later. But it soon demonstrated its control of parliament by rejecting the government's program, and it has firmed up further as an alliance since then. The AMP hasn't questioned the constitutionality of the president's actions, but it has referred to them as "imprudent," pointing to the political unsustainability of the minority government and offering the AMP as an alternative if the government falls. The lack of parliamentary support for the government's program is now the central political fact of the standoff. The AMP parties are likely to establish a formal coalition if an early election is called, and it will clearly be a formidable force.

Relatively little of substance has changed since October, apart from the thwarting of the government's budget rectification bill and a decision by the parliamentary president to delay opposition motions that would threaten the government and refer a motion for his own removal to the courts. Parliament also failed to hold certain plenary sessions in December, in apparent breach of its own regulations. These tactics seemed designed to delay the second rejection of the government program until a time closer to 22 January, the earliest day on which the president can dissolve parliament and call early elections.

The standoff has also revealed some grey constitutional areas. It's unclear, for instance, how long a government can delay re-presenting its program, though some commentators argue that the thirty-day limit for the first presentation is implied for the second. For its part, the opposition has boycotted sittings of the parliamentary committee on budget and finances, effectively preventing its operation, on the basis that a government that is not fully invested by parliament can't pass such measures. Inflammatory rhetoric has also increased, with prime minister Mari Alkatiri claiming the rejection of the government program represented an attempted golpe, or coup, and the opposition calling for the prime minister to step down. These developments highlight the apparent return of "belligerent democracy" after the informal power-sharing government of CNRT and Fretilin from 2015 to 2017.

To an extent, the current standoff is a clash of emerging conventions in Timor-Leste's democracy. Similar political systems tend to have a default presumption that the most-voted party will lead a coalition government. In Portugal, for example, that convention stayed in place for thirty-nine years after the restoration of democracy in 1976.

This view – which Fretilin has articulated consistently, in victory and defeat, at previous elections – remains central to the government's case, though certain caveats ought to be noted. First, while minority governments are perfectly constitutional, majority support in parliament is still required to pass the program. Indeed, Portugal's thirty-nine-year run ended in 2015 in similar circumstances. Second, the convention might best be seen as first right to attempt to form government, which Fretlin was given last year. Most importantly, though, Timor-Leste is entitled to develop its own political conventions, which are likely to emerge, within the bounds of the constitution, through presidential practice. It could be argued that this occurred when the CNRT-led coalition was installed in 2007, though it is also true that a majority alliance was evident far earlier when president Ramos-Horta was in the process of forming government in 2007.

Throughout this period, Fretilin has pointed to its parliamentary support for the budgets put forward by the CNRT-led government in 2013 and 2014, and its cooperation with the 2015-17 government, which relied on informal power-sharing. It also argues that its program should be held accountable by parliament, rather than simply rejected. Critics have countered that the 2015-17 CNRT-led government saw a younger Fretilin figure, Rui de Araujo, installed as PM – a vital concession to securing cross-party unity. While talk of "deals" around generational handover overstate the formality of the 2015-17 arrangements, and it is normal for the leader of the most voted party to assume the PM's role, post-election negotiations may have proceeded more smoothly if Mari Alkatiri had replicated Xanana Gusmao's move to a position of backroom power. The generational debate is largely one of form rather than content, as both men will remain powerful figures in any resolution.

Gusmao's lengthy absence from Timor-Leste, now referred to jokingly by Fretilin as a peregrinacao, or pilgrimage, was largely necessitated by the intense maritime boundary negotiations with Australia and commercial joint-venture partners. But while his decision not to return during various breaks in the talks is portrayed by supporters as "leaving it to a younger generation," it has tended to highlight how central he remains to any political resolution.

Some see a personality contest between Alkatiri and Gusmao, but many East Timorese see a deeper clash between modes of governance and inclusion. While Fretilin's attempt at forming government was unquestionably inclusive – it involved a coalition with PD, with whom it previously had fractious relations, and included Ramos-Horta and other important independent figures – Gusmao is still seen as the superior proponent of "big tent" politics.

The current impasse has also brought to the fore lingering divisions between those ex-resistance figures who were active on the external diplomatic front during the Indonesian occupation and those who were involved in military resistance within the country. Some newspapers have used this potentially divisive theme openly in headlines. The AMP reunites the key military resistance figures of Gusmao and Ruak, who were at loggerheads earlier last year. The fact that Fretilin and the PLP's platforms have, at face value, more in common than either have with the CNRT highlights the importance of resistance-era alignments.

Developments in the party system are also significant. The strong possibility of a formal AMP coalition if parliament is dissolved is an acknowledgement that finishing first matters, though perhaps more as a pragmatic accommodation of the current president's view rather than as an enduring statement of principle. Another important development is the recent emergence of the National Democratic Forum, or FDN – a group of smaller parties that were unable to clear the 4 per cent hurdle in 2017 – with the stated aim of supporting the AMP. Latest reports suggest at least five parties intend to register as a coalition, including sub-threshold parties that did relatively well in 2017, such as PUDD, the UDT and Frente Mudanca. Together, they would have a good chance of exceeding 4 per cent; if that's the case, their alliance would make it more difficult for the major parties to increase their seat share. This would particularly disadvantage Fretilin in the event of an early election. Balancing this, Catholic Church commentary on the minority government has been relatively positive, a major shift from the 2005-07 era.

With the drama approaching its endpoint, President Guterres will soon be called on to resolve the impasse. He has three paths. He could dissolve parliament and seek fresh elections. This is the path favoured by Fretilin, and remains the more likely, though not inevitable, outcome. (Intriguingly, this option may require positive parliamentary approval of election expenditure.) He can seek a solution within the current parliament, inviting the second-largest party to lead an AMP coalition government in a period of cohabitation with a Fretilin president. This is the path favoured by the AMP. A third way forward is a renegotiated government of national inclusion reflecting the power distribution in parliament, a possibility that faces the obvious hurdle that Mari Alkatiri would probably have to step down as PM.

Despite the political ructions, East Timorese society remains largely calm. Leaving aside the return of a more belligerent form of democracy and the accusations of an institutional coup, this political standoff demonstrates that the checks and balances in the constitutional system are operating, with strong executive accountability to parliament. Elections in other democratic nations – and not just those with proportional voting systems – have failed to produce sustainable governments. This does not, of itself, constitute a political crisis.

The PLP has argued throughout that Fretilin's possession of the three sovereign posts of president, prime minister and president of parliament is unreasonable given its 30 per cent vote share. While this position is a compelling one, it should also be recalled that the president received the active support of CNRT in his campaign, a final legacy of the power-sharing era of 2015-17. Like the president of parliament, therefore, current arrangements reflect a time when opposition positons were still in flux: a fact that ought to cool political tempers on both sides as next phase approaches.

Source: http://insidestory.org.au/timor-lestes-parliamentary-endgame/

In the mountains of Timor-Leste, a small success on climate change

Huffington Post - January 3, 2018

Jose Ramos-Horta – As the aftermath of the U.S. election fixes our attention internationally, and will continue to do so as we wait to see what happens next, the issue of climate change is only accelerating in urgency. We must not allow ourselves to lose focus, particularly on the climate talks currently underway in Marrakech (COP22).

Like so many other parties to the Paris Accords, the government of my country, Timor-Leste, has been diligently developing our Nationally Determined Contribution, our country's response outlining our commitment to work with the global community to fulfill the Paris Agreement in achieving our shared goals to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2C, to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C, and to achieve net zero emissions in the second half of this century.

The idea that climate change is a "hoax invented by China" would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that so many Americans seem to have been swept up into the jet stream behind the person promoting the idea. As the rest of us know, including those in the world's poorest countries, who will suffer the earliest and the most, it is not just a matter of losing animal species. Climate change posts serious humanitarian and security risks for us all. Hindering the progress made to date threatens our collective future.

Global education on the facts of climate change is a key to achieving the change required. And it must encompass everyone, from those sitting around the boardroom tables of our world's business communities to the subsistence farming communities in the developing world. Every community can play a part, and every community has a stake in doing so.

I am proud to be the patron of an innovative community reforestation and environmental education program in the mountains of Timor-Leste, one of the world's small developing nations, that is enabling subsistence farmers to generate income while taking action on climate change.

The program, WithOneSeed, has four commitments: to address environmental degradation through community reforestation, to build village economies through payment to small landholder farmers who grow and maintain forest trees, to educate communities about the importance of trees for climate adaptation and mitigation measures, and to build regional partnerships to collaborate on climate change.

Rural communities in Timor-Leste have relied on subsistence farming for generations, with many subsistence families living on less than a dollar per day. Since the country achieved independence in 2002, our community leaders have been acutely aware of the negative impact of environmental degradation and the importance of environmental regeneration for human survival.

The village communities involved in the program are now reaping the environmental, social and economic benefits of WithOneSeed's community reforestation program, while also proudly contributing to making the planet a better place by growing trees that sequester carbon.

WithOneSeed is a community social enterprise that establishes village-based plant nurseries to grow seedlings and then pays small landholders to reforest their land by planting and maintaining the trees. While it is a small program today, we aim for its expansion nationwide.

At a local level, the environmental benefits of WithOneSeed's program are vast. In addition to helping reduce atmospheric carbon levels, reforestation lessens soil erosion, improves soil and water quality, and increases crop yields and nutrition, thereby boosting the health and well-being of communities and promoting sustainable development.

Today Timorese farmers in the lower elevations are sharing their growing knowledge about climate change, carbon sequestration and environmental health and sustainability within highland communities, spreading the benefits across the country.

The social and economic benefits of WithOneSeed's program are also substantial. WithOneSeed is doubling the annual incomes of subsistence-farming families with incentive payments, a small amount per tree for each year the tree is alive. The additional income is increasing financial independence and freedom to make choices about how families live, including, for many, making it possible for their children to complete primary school.

The program is helping to build the local economy, boost education and training, and increase social and economic participation.

At a national level, Timor-Leste is an oil and gas dependent economy, largely fueled by the our offshore oil and gas reserves. WithOneSeed's program is opening up alternative economic models, vital to the growing global push towards renewable energy, fossil fuel divestment and urgent action on climate change.

The benefits of WithOneSeed's program do not end there. At an international level the program, with its emphasis on restoring the environment and boosting subsistence incomes, is also contributing to the UN's global poverty and development goals and its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We Timorese are the lowest carbon polluters per capita in the world, but despite this, we are prepared to take action to address the world carbon problem. We believe this is our responsibility as global citizens.

[This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Morocco (Nov. 7-18), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate-change issues and the conference itself.]

Source: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jose-ramoshorta/in-the-mountains-of-timor_b_12976624.html

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