Dili—Twenty-four years after being exiled in Australia, Alfredo Pires returned to Timor-Leste in 1999 to help manage the country’s resources. On a muggy afternoon, the affable 48-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair recalled when he moved from Melbourne to Dili as if it were yesterday. The years have gone by fast.
Now, Pires is the Secretary of State for Natural Resources in Timor-Leste, an appointed position responsible for overseeing the oil, gas and petroleum reserves. No one is more qualified for such a high profile position: Pires was the first Timorese citizen to be trained as a geologist. He uses his training to help guide policies, initiate laws and seek public input.
Pires is clear in his philosophy: Sovereignty and ownership of natural resources are crucial to the future of this tiny Southeast Asian nation that only a generation ago found itself in the throes of an exacting genocide and bloody conflict.
Working days, nights and weekends to help steer Timor-Leste’s natural resources to ensure a stronger future, Pires ensures that regulatory agencies and institutions are set up to support economic development.
“We fought hard for this,” he said.
Pires was born in Timor-Leste in 1964 to a family of public servants. In 1975, when Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste, Pires exiled to Australia with his family where they integrated into Australian life but maintained their cultural ties to Timor-Leste.
Pires and the family watched the events unfolding in Timor-Leste in horror and decided to become directly involved.
The devastation of the genocide, along with 24 years of conflict with Indonesia, left the country in ruin. The conflict destroyed the public infrastructure, most notably roads, schools and hospitals, and this traumatized nation had to start all over again. Pires jumped on a plane in 1999 when Timorese leaders called upon those in exile to return.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão selected Pires to serve as the Secretary of State for Natural Resources in 2007, placing him in the center of development for Timor-Leste. Alongside a team of young, dedicated Timorese geologists and engineers, Pires has led petroleum sector reform through the creation of the National Petroleum Authority, the National Oil Company and the Institute of Petroleum and Geology.
Natural gas is the leading economic driver in Timor-Leste. More than 95 percent of the economy is based on petroleum. In addition, Timor-Leste is sitting on trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. This gas can be liquefied and exported to overseas countries, creating an economic boon for the nation.
When Timor-Leste became an independent country in 2002, pundits had already declared that this nation would be unlikely to succeed. Just 10 years later, Timor-Leste has emerged as one of the leading voices on development and transparency and is now considered a middle-income country, according to the World Bank.
Pires has been among those leading the charge for civil society engagement and transparency. He helped engineer Timor-Leste’s compliance with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and collaborates with local civil society organizations. As part of the EITI process, Pires holds information sessions throughout the country. He meets with various stakeholders to explain actions the government is taking and seeks feedback, citing one instance when his team traveled throughout the country for one straight month. “We engage quite frequently,” he said. “This is what reform is about.” Pires has worked to augment previous efforts and introduce a transparency mechanism to ensure that citizens are kept up-to-date on developments within the petroleum sector. Timor-Leste is holding itself to the highest level of transparency and wants to be an example to other countries, he said.
And, Timor-Leste is being recognized for its efforts. In a sign of how far Timor-Leste had come in its short life as an independent country, Timor-Leste hosted a regional meeting on oil and transparency in 2011, with input from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“The whole idea is about transparency, good governance and how you involve civil society,” Pires said.
The point of natural resources, Pires said, is to invest in the people of Timor-Leste. Proceeds from gas and oil allow Timor-Leste to create viable institutions to prepare the country and its people for the challenges ahead.
One area that has been near to Pires’ heart has been providing opportunities for future Timorese geologists. Pires has been at the forefront of encouraging young people to study geology and provide their own insights to resource management. There are currently more than 160 students on scholarship studying geology and related fields. Ten of these students have begun mapping onshore resources, demonstrating that Timor-Leste is already benefiting from investing in its young people. Pires encouraged the students to continue their studies and to serve their country well.
“This is to build their capacity and, at the same time, enhance the capacity of our institutions with people equipped with the best knowledge in relevant areas, which after all reflects our vision for the future,” Pires said.
Pires has been at the forefront of ensuring that the future is prepared to manage the country’s resources. He’s supported training programs that encourage government servants to acquire further skills.
Pires calls for a rigorous “after oil” policy, in which the government sees oil as an engine – not an end – to economic development. To that end, Timor-Leste created the National Petroleum Authority to regulate the sector.
Timor-Leste should not become overly dependent on oil, and the government needs to invest in the non-oil sector, he said, adding, “We need to see this is as an agent of growth. It’s about using this oil to prepare for the economy.”