The role of the ocean in the economic redevelopment of Timor-Leste

This is the second post from the University of Adelaide second and third year science student trip to Timor Leste (as part of an Australian government New Colombo Plan funded trip). The graphic and essay that follows is by Joel Driver, a third year BSc (Advanced) student.

Since its near-complete annihilation during the retreat and subsequent scorched-earth campaign of the Indonesian military in 1999, Timor-Leste has been enduring a slow process of reconstruction. With an estimated 75% of the country’s infrastructure destroyed during Indonesia’s retreat (CIA World Factbook 2017), Timor-Leste faced the enormous challenge of reconstructing the infrastructure and systems required to provide the services its people required. This challenge continues today and one of the most significant sources of the income required to realise this goal surrounds Timor-Leste; the ocean.

Economic Profile

With a GDP of only $4.975 billion (CIA World Factbook 2017), equivalent to a per capita GDP of $4,200 (compared to Australia’s per capita GDP of $48,800), Timor-Leste is an exceptionally poor country. With 41.8% of the population living below the poverty line and annual government revenue of only $300 million (versus expenditure of $2.8 billion), available money for redevelopment is severely lacking.

Marine-related income currently accounts for about 90% of government revenue through the extraction of petroleum from oil fields in the Timor Sea, however from 2015 to 2016 this income fell considerably as existing fields approach depletion (World Bank Group 2017).

Oceanic Income Potential

The most obvious choice for generating revenue for Timor-Leste is the development of its oil and gas fields. The Greater Sunrise fields, located 150km south-east of Timor-Leste and 450km north-west of Darwin contain an estimated $53 billion worth of condensate and liquefied petroleum gas (Woodside Energy 2017). However, an ongoing dispute between the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia over maritime boundaries and ownership rights of the Greater Sunrise fields has stalled development with all commercialisation efforts being put on hold until an agreement is reached (SBS News 2017).

With petroleum exploration income capped at its current rate for the time being, another potential oceanic source of income is commercial fishing. While subsistence fishing is already an important source of livelihood for a large proportion of the Timorese population, the full commercial potential of fishing in Timor-Leste is yet to be realised. A quantified estimate of the commercial potential of large-scale fishing in Timorese waters is not yet available due to limited data and research in this area, however, a common consensus is that this sector presents a vast opportunity for future exploitation despite challenges such as illegal fishing and extremely limited existing infrastructure (Fontes and Marques 2012).

An alternate pathway which is already of great interest to the Timorese government is marine ecotourism. Marine ecotourism activities such as diving, snorkelling and recreational sport fishing have been repeatedly identified as a solid source of revenue for Timor-Leste to tap into to diversify its economy and reduce its reliance on non-renewable resources. A 2013 report by Conservation International developed for the Timor-Leste National Coordinating Committee found that, “Timor-Leste has excellent potential for development of marine tourism as a synergistic economic driver along with MPA (Marine Protected Area) implementation.”

As a nation with a young, poorly educated population, limited infrastructure and restricted existing revenue streams, the bounty and beauty of the oceans of Timor-Leste present an exciting opportunity for the future of this country’s current and future generations. With proper establishment and management, the potential of Timor-Leste’s ocean utilisation is extraordinary.


AAP (2017). Timor Leste’s scrapping of oil and gas treaty could ‘create a failed state’. SBS News. Available at: [accessed 30 July 2017]

CIA (2017). The World Factbook - Timor-Leste. Central Intelligence Agency. Available at: [accessed 26 July 2017]

Erdmann, Mark, Gerald Allen, Emre Turak, Lyndon Devantier, and Candice Mohan (2013). A Rapid Marine Biological Assessment of Timor-Leste. Conservation International, Dili, Timor-Leste. Available at:

Fontes, L.B. and F. S. Marques (2012). State of the Coral Reefs of Timor Leste. National CTI Coordinating Committee of Timor-Leste. Available at:

Lourenco Fontes (2004). Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries. Government of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Available at: [accessed 30 July 2017]

Woodside Energy Ltd. (2017). Sunrise LNG. Woodside. Available at: [accessed 30 July 2017]

World Bank Group (2017). Timor Leste Economic Update April 2017. Available at: