Incentives Case Study

Homestays in Timor-Leste Transform Tourists into Citizen Scientists

Achieving lasting conservation requires a truly multi-dimensional approach that incorporates education, legislation and research; however, its longevity often comes down to providing sufficient incentives for local people to engrain environmental stewardship in their everyday lives in a way that benefits livelihoods and offers opportunities to generate lasting economic returns.

The project has also opened the potential for a growing number of local people to become directly invested in the ecotourism industry either through homestays of their own or by providing additional services to visitors.

Coastal zones provide access to diverse and productive ecosystems which have sustained human populations throughout history. Although they only account for around 8% of the world’s surface area, they support roughly 25% of global productivity. Consequently, the human-generated stresses on these ecosystems are considerable. Add rapid population growth to this mix and the future becomes even less sustainable for these businesses, communities and the marine resources they rely on.

Therefore, the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project has sought to establish economic solutions for coastal communities that promote responsible practices, encourage environmental stewardship and provide alternative economic opportunities to detrimental fishing practices and the over-exploitation of marine resources in the eight project countries.

TL2Project Facts
Title:Incentivising community engagement in dugong and seagrass conservation in Timor-Leste through volunteer ecotourism.
Project Type:Incentives.
Project IDTL2 – 2136.
ObjectivesTo incentivise local communities to better understand, value and protect dugongs and marine habitats via the establishment of a community-based marine ecotourism project.
Lead Partner:Blue Ventures Conservation.
Supporting Partners:Empreza Di’ak, Conservation International (CI) and Asia Foundation.
Implementation Period:August 1, 2015–September 30, 2018.
GEF Funding:US $380,000.
Partners' Funding:in-kind, $574,562.50; cash, $230,743.
Leveraged Funds:$329,967.85.
Relevant global project components: Component 1 – Improved site-level management at globally important sites for dugongs and seagrasses; Component 2 – Development of incentive mechanisms and tools to promote conservation and sustainable use of dugongs and seagrass ecosystems; Component 3 – Removal of knowledge barriers.

Generating incentives

Incentives to promote and sustain dugong and seagrass conservation include a number of alternative livelihood options tailored to the particular circumstances and opportunities that exist in each nation. They include a variety of profitable activities, from spirulina farming in Indonesia to sea bass aquaculture and ornamental fish breeding in Sri Lanka. Given their attractive climate, natural features and exotic wildlife, however, tourism plays a key role in the economic development of all eight of the states targeted by the DSCP.

Working with local families, the project team established a unique homestay arrangement, whereby tourists are hosted in local houses for six-week periods to undertake SCUBA seagrass and reef monitoring as well as engaging in a variety of community activities.

In Timor-Leste, one project provides an example of how innovative, replicable eco-tourism models can incentivise deep engagement in dugong and seagrass conservation. As with many parallel incentives projects around the world, the project sought to diversify livelihoods among target coastal communities by generating a sustained source of income that encourages community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) activities for priority seagrass ecosystems and small-scale fisheries.

Alternative livelihood opportunities in tourism

Dugongs in Timor-Leste are protected under the Marine Protected Species Act. They are also listed in Annex I of the draft Biodiversity Decree Law and identified as endangered in the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), which highlights the importance of seagrass ecosystems. Nonetheless, both decision-makers and the general public in Timor-Leste remain largely unaware of the status and importance of dugongs and their seagrass habitat.

Timor-Leste provides a hugely important last refuge for a range of threatened species and also acts as a key migration corridor. Traditional marine resource management, although effective in the past, is today undermined by a host of threats including those associated with the detrimental demands of new economic pressures. Therefore, a new and innovative approach to marine resource management is urgently needed to preserve the vital marine ecosystem.

Rising to this challenge, the DSCP established a pioneering marine ecotourism venture in Beloi on the island of Ataúro. Working with local families, the project team established a unique homestay arrangement, whereby tourists are hosted in local houses for six-week periods to undertake SCUBA seagrass and reef monitoring as well as engaging in a variety of community activities.

When not in use by ecotourists brought to Beloi by the lead project partner, the homestays have been made available to other tourists visiting throughout the year. This has given the local community in Beloi the opportunity to differentiate their food and income sources year-round.

Rather than being issued a grant, the community received a small loan to start-up their homestays, the idea being to motivate them to work together and build capacities in order to repay the loan. This is precisely what has happened, with the loan paid in full and solid income being generated during the course of the project. Some of the proceeds are now being channelled into bank accounts, opened by each family to save for their children’s education.

Seagrass mapping in Beloi.

Volunteers from all over the world were invited to visit Beloi and came in large numbers to use the homestays and conduct monitoring activities. These focussed on Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) established under Tara Bandu customary law and sought to support community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) efforts by collecting data. All volunteers pay access fees for snorkelling and diving – also established by the project – that are then used by the community to conduct seagrass and coral reef monitoring using the tools provided by the DSCP.

The scheme is now so successful that the average monthly income for participating families has doubled under the initiative, significantly reducing the reliance on subsistence fishing.

The project has also opened the potential for a growing number of local people to become directly invested in the ecotourism industry either through homestays of their own or by providing additional services to visitors – for example, by opening restaurants or making and selling souvenirs. In addition, ten community members were trained in ecological mapping techniques and a further eleven received ecological monitoring training specifically based on the Seagrass-Watch methodology, and they are now regularly employed in mapping activities in Biqueli and Beloi.
Furthermore, direct liaison between the main partner and local people during the course of the project also provided opportunities to discuss the importance of preserving the marine environment for tourism more generally.

Homestay guests enjoy dinner with their hosts.

A lasting impact

By providing capacity building through training and education on food preparation, hygiene and hospitality, tour guiding and business management, the DSCP has brought lasting benefits for the community in Beloi and provided clear, tangible incentives to engage in resource management and conservation rather than relying on subsistence fishing.
The project inspired ecotourists from around the world, providing global exposure and access to international markets for the homestay association and allowing it to grow to include more participants and services. Indeed, it has been so successful that the Timor-Leste Ministry of Tourism has asked the lead project partner to provide guidance for establishing similar arrangements at a national level.

Beyond its impact in Timor-Leste, the project also provides an ideal model for replication elsewhere in the world in areas of importance for dugongs and seagrasses, or indeed other marine species throughout the other target countries of the broader Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project.

Not only has the main concept of the project proved successful but the process of implementation has proved to be an ideal platform to deepen engagement with the community on marine conservation issues and promote greater understanding of the intrinsic value of dugongs and seagrasses to the economic future of the area and its people. Again, there is significant potential for successful replication of this outcome in other areas and nations.

By encouraging and empowering local people to become fully invested in preserving their local marine habitat through economic engagement, this and the many other DSCP incentive projects implemented worldwide have laid the basis for ongoing community-led conservation throughout the dugong’s global range. By building the capacity for engagement in ecotourism, whilst also establishing opportunities for alternative livelihoods for those engaged in exploitative practices that undermine the marine environment, the long-term outcomes of the project now have the potential to span not only lifetimes but generations to come.