On 4 September, workers in Dili were busy erecting a series of congratulatory billboards – one featured a stock photo of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – to celebrate the conclusion of maritime boundary negotiations with Australia in The Hague. Later that day, feted leader Xanana Gusmão was paraded through the streets as he returned home from his role as head negotiator. In Timorese politics, both in parliament and on the streets, the dispute with Australia has come to represent the major challenge to Timorese sovereignty. The latest revelations of illegal fishing demonstrate the capacity of foreign companies (with the likely complicity of some government allies) to abrogate legislation designed to protect wildlife, the environment, workers, and future sources of sustainable income.
In 2016, Timor-Leste became the first country in the region to list as protected all of its shark species. The country boasts the most biodiverse waters in the world, with potential for both tourism and sustainable fishing. In November of the same year, Pingtan Marine Enterprises, operating as Honglong Fisheries Lda., signed a US$312,450 contract with the Government of Timor-Leste to operate a fleet of fifteen drift net trawlers. The first evidence of illegal fishing under this licensing arrangement came only three months later: in February, drone footage was released showing the Pingtan mothership and feeder vessels with cargo holds containing 400 tons of sharks.
The name Pingtan may be unfamiliar – Pingtan operates in Timor-Leste and elsewhere as Hong Long Enterprises – but their recent activities likely less so: they have been banned from neighbouring Indonesian waters since 2014 on account of contractual breaches. In August, part of its fleet was intercepted and detained in the Galapagos National Park. There, the same mothership recorded in Timor-Leste in February, the Fu Yuan Yu 999, was caught with 300 tons of sharks. The company doesn’t only target protected marine areas; Pingtan/HLE was reported earlier this year as experiencing a downturn in share value as a result of concerns over human trafficking, as well as well-documented fraud and bribery.
The February revelations could have been the end of a short, misguided affair between the company and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, but a subsequent government investigation found that the capture of sharks had been incidental to operations, and fined each vessel US$500 – the minimum penalty provided for in the law. Bizarrely, the Director-General of Fisheries, Acacio Gueterres, was reported in the Independente newspaper in March as saying that his ministry was seeking to introduce a new policy to cull all sharks to mitigate their threat to other fish stocks and humans. This was later retracted and attributed to a misquotation.
Investigative journalism in Timor-Leste is hampered by real threats to press freedom. Journalist Raimundos Oki was brought to trial recently, for example, having been pursued with criminal defamation charges against the prime minister. It was in this context – the absence of any investigation into the Pingtan contract and the odd fidelity of the ministry to its unlikely corporate suitor – that I was led to Vemasse, a small coastal town a few bumpy hours east of Dili.
The rusted skeletal remains of a port – once used by the Indonesian military – is now infrequently visited by photo-hungry travellers and the odd fisher. I met a man from the neighbouring city of Baucau there, perched on the far end of the remaining metal structures, deftly threading miniscule crabs onto a hook. Later, after a local family had plied us with local spirits, I struck up a conversation with a local fisher who went out into the crocodile-rich waters daily in search of fish to trade or sell. The market for fish in Vemasse is small (as in other towns across the country), but in the shadows of the rusted port this town is a key site for the highest-value fishing operations Timor-Leste has seen. Despite there being no permanent maritime or fisheries authority here, the Pingtan fleet gathers to transfer catch to the company’s mother ship every three months.
We had planned to return to observe this maritime transfer for ourselves but that turned out to be unnecessary. On 9 September the Sea Shepard vessel Ocean Warrior, together with a small contingent of the national police force, intercepted boats operating to the south east of Vemasse. They noted that the vessels were dropping anchored nets down to 80 metres – a practice which targets sharks and effectively strips the reef of its coral and results in a broadscale harvest. It’s estimated that each hull contained about 20 tons of catch, 95 per cent of which was sharks. Moreover, because the fleet operates without mandatory tracking systems, all of Timor-Leste’s waters have been open to such abuse. In May 2017, for instance, Pingtan vessels were sighted in the marine park surrounding Jaco Island, which is protected not only because of its biodiversity but also the local cultural significance of the channel between Jaco and the mainland.
In late September, the ministry announced a temporary suspension of Pingtan’s licence. This suspension, however, is to allow an investigation into the legality of the fleet’s registration – not into the targeting of protected species. It is reasonable to assume that the de facto arrangement between Pingtan and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is one in which the company’s targeting protected species has been wilfully overlooked. Indeed, the Portuguese paper Diaro de Noticias is reporting that the minimum fine of just US$500 is being applied to ships boarded in the September raid.
The ministry also failed to inspect the early-June catch transfer. More generally, it is common knowledge among labour unions that the poor working conditions on the company’s ships have meant that despite a formal contractual stipulation that Pingtan offer local employment opportunities, no locals are willing to work the ships.
While it’s still too early to conclude whether the negotiations with Australia will produce a just outcome for Timor-Leste, the actual extent of sovereignty in Timor-Leste will remain an issue to be wrestled with – not necessarily in the formal sense of maritime boundaries, but in the much more unwieldy sense of popular and transparent sovereignty over natural and cultural resources. The suspension of the contract and upcoming investigation may be a play by elements within the ministry to navigate a circuitous route to full revocation of the contract; in many ways, it will be a test of how well national environmental legislation can stand up to the lure of foreign contracts. If the government fails to act comprehensively against Pingtan, the aspirations celebrated in the congratulatory billboards that still pepper the streets of Dili will remain a distant hope.