Preserving the past to build the future: restoring Balibó fort
Located in the historic village of Balibo, around 3 hours west of Dili, Balibo Fort Hotel is a stunning mountain retreat set in the grounds of the 300-year-old Balibo Fort. Offering eight well-appointed rooms set within the fort gardens, Balibo Fort Hotel is a social enterprise partnership between Timor Heritage Hotels, Balibo House Trust and the local community. The Hotel provides economic opportunity for the people of Balibo, and directly employs and trains 20 local people in hospitality while offering a superior guest experience.
Proceeds from the Hotel support local initiatives including the Balibo Community Learning Centre and a Dental Clinic to be completed in 2016.
History of Balibó Fort
Balibó fort is the largest and most intact example of Portuguese fort architecture remaining in Timor-Leste. While few colonial records from the period remain, Balibó fort is thought to date from between 1700 and 1750 and is the second-oldest surviving fort in Timor-Leste.
Portuguese settlers first reached the coast of Timor-Leste around 1515 and sought to capitalise on the regional trade in sandalwood. The fort at Batugade – the oldest in Timor-Leste – was constructed around 1655 to protect the colony against hostile indigenous people. Balibo Fort was built to further protect the port colony of Batugade.
Balibó was considered an ideal location for the fort due to its commanding height, its position at the crossroads of important trade routes and its location in the middle of a turbulent tribal area. The fort commands sweeping views across the village of Balibó, down to the port town of Batugade, across the Ombai-Wetar Straits and into West Timor.
Balibó Fort has played a significant role in the history of Timor-Leste. In the 19th century, the presence of the fort and its role as a military stronghold helped to define the border between the Portuguese-controlled East Timor and the Dutch-controlled West Timor. During World War II, the Balibó fort was used a base for Japanese forces in Balibó. On September 4th 1944, Dutch airmen from the No.18 Netherlands East Indies Squadron RAAF flying a US Mitchell bomber destroyed the original fort house during a bombing raid on a Japanese rifle position.
In 1975, five Australian-based television journalists – who would later become known as the Balibó Five – filmed pre-invasion Indonesian naval forces at Batugade from the ramparts of the fort. The five men were murdered by Indonesian troops on October 16th, 1975. The Balibo Five Flag House Memorial Room is located across from Balibo Fort Hotel at the Balibo Community Learning Centre.
In 1999, part of the Australian INTERFET peacekeeping force was based in the fort, helping to secure the Indonesian border, just a few kilometres from Balibó.
Balibó Fort Today
Today the fort serves as an enduring link between Balibo’s past and its hopes for a peaceful and prosperous future.
The fort walls, ramparts and cannon have been preserved and the former colonial administrator’s residence inside the fort is restored. Following appropriate archaeological research, the fort’s former prison cells and munitions stores have also been preserved.
The fort serves as a hub for cultural tourism in the western part of Timor-Leste benefitting the people of Balibó, the surrounding sukus of Batugade, Cova, Leohitu, Leolima and Sanirin and the people of Bobonaro district.
Community capacity building is a crucial element of the project. Local people have been trained in hospitality and tourism and mentored to develop the skills and experience needed to transition the project to long-term local ownership. They are learning skills in areas such as English, marketing, technology and internet and are directly employed in the operation of the fort and related activities.
Funds generated by the project will directly support the Balibó community through a local development fund, focusing on strategic infrastructure and capacity-building programs. Future plans include the construction of a dental clinic at the Community Learning Centre.