A Nation of the 21st Century
A Nation of the 21st Century
Nestled amongst the Lesser Sunda Islands is one of the world’s youngest countries: the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, the first nation state to be born in the 21st century. It is also one of mankind’s many cradles: the first settlers to Australia are thought to have likely come from Timor across the Timor Sea more than 50,000 years ago.
At around 15,000 square kilometers and with just over one million people, contemporary Timor-Leste is the smallest nation in the Coral Triangle. It is a land of extremes and contrasts. Dramatic mountain ranges jut up from deep cobalt seas. Silvery beaches, seemingly untouched since the dawn of time, give way to shaded woods glistening emerald in the tropical sun.
With a coastline of over 700 km and claim on an marine Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles, Timor-Leste has an abundance of marine fishing grounds. The earliest evidence for humanity’s dependence on the sea comes from Eastern Timor, too. Not long ago, in the Jerimalai Cave near the easternmost tip of the island, researchers found 42,000-year-old tuna, shark, and turtle bones as well as the world’s oldest fishing hook, suggesting that the island’s earliest inhabitants had high-level maritime skills.
Timor-Leste: Facts and Figures
  • Timor-Leste is made up of the eastern part of Timor, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, the islands of Ataúro and Jaco, and a small part of western Timor on the shore of the Savu Sea and bordered on three sides by Indonesia.
  • In May 2002, Timor Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century.
  • Timor-Leste is the smallest Coral Triangle nation, at only 15,000 km2.
  • The country is inhabited by 1.1 million people, speaking 32 languages, with an average of just under 35,000 speakers per language. Tetum and Portuguese are the country’s official languages; English and Bahasa Indonesia are also used as working languages.
  • Portuguese, one of the country’s official languages, is spoken as a primary tongue by less than 600 people; a further 6 languages are in danger of extinction.
  • About 60 per cent of Timor-Leste’s population is under 25 years of age, which makes it one of the demographically youngest countries in the world.
  • Timor-Leste’s population is set to double within the next 20 years.
  • Adult literacy rate is approximately 42 percent.
Economy and Environment
  • Having lost around 70 percent of private and public buildings during the struggles for independence, Timor-Leste has shown steady economic growth rivaling that of more stable neighbors and has had significant gains in health and education since 2002.
  • Timor-Leste uses the US Dollar as its currency.
  • The country’s largest exports are oil and gas. The International Monetary Fund has labeled Timor-Leste as the ‘most oil-dependent economy in the world’.
  • Coffee, the country’s second-largest export, generates approximately $10 million USD/year; Starbucks is a major Timorese coffee buyer.
  • Despite the country’s achievements over the last decade and a half, poverty remains high, particularly in rural areas, which rely mostly on subsistence farming. More than 50 per cent of the population lives under the poverty threshold. Nonetheless, The World Bank regards Timor-Leste’s development post-independence as remarkable.
  • The Nino Konis Santana National Park in Timor-Leste includes a large oceanic area covering nearly 350 km2 of coral reef .The park also includes Mount Paitchau, Lake Ira Lalaro, the uninhabited Jaro Island.
  • Surveys of Timor-Leste’s coral reefs indicate that they are home to more than 1,200 species of reef fish and 400 reef-building coral species.
  • Due to peculiarities in its marine geography, reefs in Timor-Leste may prove more resilient to climate change effects than other reefs in the Coral Triangle. Most of the high-resilience reefs found in the country are in Nino Konis Santana National Park and around Ataúro Island.
History and Culture
  • Based on studies in mitochondrial genetics, some researchers have concluded that the first people to arrive in Australia came via Timor about 40,000–80,000 years ago.
  • Timor-Leste is one of only two countries in Southeast Asia to be predominantly Christian, the other being the Philippines.
  • The earliest evidence of deep sea fishing in the world comes from the Jerimalai Cave in in Nino Konis Santana National Park. Tuna and turtle bones, some dating back 42,000 years, have been found here, showing that the island’s earliest inhabitants had high-level maritime skills. The oldest fishing hook, dating to 16,000–23,000 years ago, has also been discovered in the cave. Many regard this as proof that the people who lived here at the time had the skills required to make the long sea voyage to Australia.
Today however, the marine and coastal environment of Timor-Leste is under threat. The loss of mangroves and riparian forests in the country has led to siltation and damage to the reef systems. More than 80% of the mangroves of the country have been lost in the last 50 years, and they continue to be harvested for food and fuel. Foreign fleets illegally fishing in Timor-Leste waters are common and are resulting in an estimated loss of $40 million USD annually to the Timorese economy. At the same time destructive fishing practices, such as dynamiting and cyanide fishing, are on the rise, permanently destroying the reef habitats that are vital for the fish to breed. Studies undertaken in 2010 showed that agriculture (including fisheries) contributed nearly 94% of the income of the country’s subsistence farming communities, which comprise about 85% of the total population. Within these communities malnourishment is common, with over 50 percent of children under 5 years of age considered undernourished.
What can you do?
Help us to support Timor-Leste’s communities to sustainably manage their marine and coastal resources.
Coral Triangle Center