Part of Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development Plan is the building of three industrial clusters on the country’s southwest coast, which will be the backbone of its petroleum industry. But civil society groups have warned that the ambitious project will have little impact on the economy.
The Tasi Mane (Male Sea) Project will involve the development of an integrated petroleum infrastructure in the coastal zone from Suai to Beaço over the next two decades. The plan includes the construction of the Suai Supply Base cluster, the Betano Refinery and Petrochemical Industry cluster, and the Beaço LNG-Plant cluster.
Suai will become a centre for providing services, logistics, fabrications and human resources for the petroleum industry. The supply base will require the establishment of a sea port in Kamanasa, a housing complex, heavy metals workshop, shipbuilding and repair facilities and a rehabilitated Suai airport. In Betano, a refinery and petrochemical complex will rise in a new centre that will be known as Petroleum City. And finally, in Beaco, an LNG Plant complex will be constructed near the towns of Nova Beaco and Nova Viqueque. The existing airport at Viqueque will be upgraded into a regional airport.
Aside from addressing the long term domestic energy requirements of Timor-Leste, the Tasi Mane Project is expected to generate substantial revenues, jobs, and livelihood opportunities in the country’s southern corridor. The government is confident that it will boost the petroleum sector, which can be used to directly promote the industrialization of the economy.
Timor-Leste is dependent on its oil revenues, but economists have already advised it to diversify its economy by venturing into non-oil activities since its oil and gas reserves are estimated to reach its peak in 13 years. But La'o Hamutuk, a Timor-Leste-based NGO, believes that Tasi Mane reflects the continuing dependence of the country on the petroleum industry. In its critique of the government’s development strategy, the group noted that petroleum processing seems to be the only industrial development discussed in the paper. ‘What about agricultural processing, or light industry to replace imported products?’ the group asked.
The group also questioned the government allocation of over 30 million for the Tasi Mane project, which is more than twice the budget of the Agriculture Ministry. ‘We lamented the nearly exclusive focus on the petroleum industry and resulting in lost opportunities to explore other possibilities for economic development,’ the group said.
The project blueprint is also silent on the concrete and real impact of Tasi Mane on the local economy and the communities in the south coast. ‘Nothing is said about how many jobs these projects will provide for Timorese workers, how much land they will take from uses such as agriculture and fishing, how many people will have to be displaced, or how much revenue they will generate for the state,’ La'o Hamutuk added.
Parliament is being urged by the NGO not to grant the government a blank cheque for a project that’s lacking transparency and whose economic viability is in doubt.
Still, the Tasi Mane Project is the flagship programme of Timor-Leste’s development strategy, and it has much potential since it can harness the country’s petroleum resources for the long term benefit of the local population. It can redirect the oil revenues to spur industrialization and the diversification of the local economy. But the issues raised by La'o Hamutuk and other NGOs are also valid, and they require immediate government consideration and action. Timor-Leste’s leaders must clarify these issues by engaging and consulting with the people, especially the communities that will be affected or displaced by Tasi Mane.