During the Indonesian occupation, resistance fighters risked their lives to gain liberation. A number of de Carvalho’s friends and colleagues were tortured and killed by Indonesian military forces, many of them in the bloody 1991 Dili massacre that killed 270 people. A week later, de Carvalho was seized by the Indonesian police and thrown in jail for three weeks without due process for his involvement in a protest in Jakarta. By the time East Timor achieved independence in 2002, one-third of the population, an estimated 250,000 people, had been killed by systematic slaughter, forced starvation and relocation. The island’s forests, which resistance fighters relied on for cover, had been slashed and burned to ruin by Indonesian troops.
In 2004, the majority of East Timor’s 965,000 citizens survived on less than a dollar a day. The widespread economic hardship put enormous strains on the country’s natural resources. For example, in communities around Dili, the nation’s capital, people with no other means of income began clearing trees to sell as firewood.
In 1998, de Carvalho founded the Haburas Foundation, which means “to make green and fresh” in Tetum, East Timor’s national language, to tackle his country’s environmental crises. Operating out of his home on a shoestring budget, de Carvalho is largely credited for spearheading the progressive inclusion of four key articles in East Timor’s constitution: the right to a healthy environment; respect for traditional customary law; prioritization of sustainable development; and natural resource management.
For a country building its republic from the ground up, these principles have played a critical legal and symbolic role in guiding the management of the island’s natural resources, from oil reserves in the Timor Sea to its rainforests and coral reefs. Today, de Carvalho and Haburas continue to advise the new government on environmental policies.
“East Timor must learn from the examples of neighboring countries in the Asia Pacific,” de Carvalho has said. “Models of development that have gone wrong there should serve as lessons for us. We do not want to repeat the same mistakes.”
Haburas, under de Carvalho’s leadership, takcled a number of high-priority environmental initiatives. Among them was protecting Lake Iralalaru in the eastern part of the country, an unexplored wetlands area that was threatened by a proposed hydropower station and plans to pump the lake for irrigating sugarcane plantations. De Carvalho pushed for further environmental studies of the ecosystem and of the impact on local communities before any development moved forward.
De Carvalho and Haburas also led community reforestation and watershed management programs to reduce forest and land degradation. Guiding these environmental efforts was the cultural revitalization of Tara Bandu, what de Carvalho calls East Timor’s “traditional ecological wisdom.”
As East Timor eyed tourism as its second major source of revenue beyond oil, de Carvalho continued to shape the growing industry by helping communities set up cooperative eco-tourism businesses that promote folk culture and environmentally sensitive expeditions. He also acted as a bridge between indigenous communities and government officials in the creation of East Timor’s first national park.
“It’s not just that Demetrio is heading an environmental group, Haburas is the leading group that has a handle on all of the major development and environmental issues facing East Timor,” according to Tim Anderson, a professor of political economy at the University of Sydney who worked with de Carvalho during the country’s transition to independence. “Demetrio is the one steering the country in a direction of true sustainable development. He is one of the new leaders of East Timor.”