Academics and students from UWA, mainly from the School of Earth and Environment, have been working in East Timor for eight years, to understand the geology, with the aim of helping locals to take advantage of their natural resources.
Little by little that potential is being realised. In March, UWA’s first graduate from East Timor, Gilsel Borges, was handed his geology degree and he is now doing a graduate diploma working on a geological mapping project near his home town in East Timor. Gilsel studied with the help of a scholarship from the Norwegian Development Agency.
It is one of many small steps towards economic rehabilitation for the island of Timor, which, ten years after it regained its independence, is still ranked 162nd out of 182 countries in the United Nations human development index.
Since Professor Myra Keep’s first visit to the island in early 2003, she has recruited several colleagues, some from other Schools, and they have supervised ten Honours and two PhD projects, with another four Honours students and a PhD who started this year. Their work has been focused on petroleum systems and sponsored by Italian oil company Eni. The latest students are being supervised by Professors Myra Keep, David Haig and Annette George, and Assistant Professor Eric Tohver.
Two Timorese students, funded by Norwegian scholarships, are currently doing their Geology degrees in the School and two more students (sponsored by Eni) have recently arrived at UWA to begin an English language program before enrolling in a graduate diploma in Geology. Other Timorese students, funded by their government, are studying English at UWA’s Claremont campus and some of them are planning to study geology too.
“Timor has the potential for a really good natural resource industry,” Professor Keep said. “But we don’t really know what’s there.
“The island has never been mapped in detail. The first geological map was published in 1968 as a reconnaissance map, and it remains the main source of information.
“The mountain belt that forms Timor is comparable in size to the Swiss Alps, but, in geological terms, it is only just emerging from the water. The Swiss Alps have been mapped by thousands of geologists over hundreds of years but fewer than a dozen geologists have done any mapping in Timor,” she said.
“It is a fantastic place for student projects, there is so much to learn. But it will be a long time before resource industries get up and running.”
Professor Keep said Timor had revenue flowing in from its oil agreements in the Timor Sea. That money is being used to rebuild Timor after its many years of turbulent occupation and civil war.
“You can see roads and other projects being built in and around Dili,” she said. “But it’s still a young democracy finding its way. There are still very few jobs and a lot of unemployed youths on the streets.
“It is a beautiful island which could one day boast a tourist industry but there is no infrastructure yet to support it.”
Most of Professor Keep’s work now revolves around Timor, which she visits three or four times a year, sometimes having to stay in derelict houses, left over from the 1999 uprising.
“From our work over the past eight years, we now have a much clearer understanding of the ages and derivations of the rocks and a real idea of the petroleum system. We are beginning to understand what systems are present and where they are.
“We know there is oil and gas underneath the ground because it is leaking to the surface. We don’t know how long it’s been leaking but it means that the structure has been breached,” she said. “It’s just another of the questions that Timor keeps throwing at us: ‘How did that happen?’ is one of our constant questions.”
Professor Keep said the key to the geological history, which will point to the realisation of Timor’s potential, is in the micro fossils found in the layers of rock.
“We need to date them layer by layer and that’s David Haig’s field. He is my white stick when it comes fossils.”
In the early years, she and Professor Haig brought staff from the East Timorese Directorate of Energy, Minerals and Resources to UWA for training.
Then the oil companies put up scholarships for bright young students to come to UWA for full degree courses. Gilsel and Professor Keep discuss his graduate diploma work
“It is part of the agreement between Eni and the Timorese government that a specific amount of money be spent on ‘local content’, as part of the exploration licence,” Professor Keep said. “And the Norwegians have helped the Timorese to set up a petroleum fund, so between them, they have been able to send five students to UWA so far.”
UWA’s collaborations don’t stop with students. Eni has recently signed an agreement to build a big geological laboratory in Dili for exploration companies to process their samples. And a local WA rotary club has approached the UWA team for their help in finding where they can drill for water in East Timor.
The School of Anatomy and Human Biology has also joined the Timor research group, led by Assistant Professor Debra Judge, with Professor Linc Schmidt and Assistant Professor Kathy Sanders also taking part. Their first Honours student, Nadine Reghupathy, has just finished her thesis. A new Geophysics post-doctorate fellow, Assistant Professor Jeff Shragge, completes the 2010 team.