Subject: East Timor districts start anew by cooperating with NGOs

The Jakarta Post April 1, 2001

East Timor districts start anew by cooperating with NGOs

By Ati Nurbaiti

DILI (JP): The rains finally poured in late December, too much in some areas for a good corn harvest. Emergency operations over the past year have alleviated fear of widespread starvation as crops and cattle had been abandoned by farmers who fled the violence with their families.

In the regions of East Timor, now called districts, some villagers are banding together to make life easier, and by working with local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Now it is safe to work the fields but farmers would have to raise at least Rp 1 million each for seeds and fertilizers, and seek help, which is scarce, to work the fields. Workers in Memo, Maliana regency used to come from across the mountain in neighboring Atambua in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara or West Timor.

Carpenters, weavers, fisherfolk and farmers in Maubara and Maliana in the western region, which is one of Timor's main rice producers, are new to their work and unsure where their products or produce will be marketed.

A Japanese Catholic NGO is helping by buying bamboo furniture from the carpenters in Maubara. Women are selling their woven tais on the beach for the occasional passer-by. The Dili-based human rights group, Hak Foundation, which is helping some of these NGOs get aid says it is picky about which NGOs it assists.

In Kailoku village in Maliana, farmer Joao Soares says farmers here are getting worried. "UNTAET promised to lend us a tractor," he said, referring to the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. He said it was time to plow, but there was no sign of the tractor.

Women in Suai, near the southern coast, and Liquica and Ermera in the west, sell cloth to traders who peddle the handicraft in Dili's market -- these traders themselves are waiting for their coffee crop to bear fruit.

"Coffee is only harvested once a year," said a trader from Ermera, one of Timor's highland coffee producers.

The price of coffee has dropped to about half the price from Rp 5,500 per kilogram of coffee beans before the 1999 UN-sponsored referendum.


To enhance farmers' income, Minister of Economic Affairs Mari Alkatiri says the new elected government should first aim to break the monopoly of America's cooperative association NCBA, which formerly cooperated with a company run by Indonesian military personnel.

Annual yields have not much increased the welfare of the people. "Even before the harvest, men have raised debts and thrown away money by gambling," says one Dili resident.

Sociologist George J. Aditjondro, in a book which debunks the myth of Indonesia's contribution to East Timor, says coffee growers in the former Indonesian province have instead contributed billions of rupiah to Indonesia, given the lower price of coffee here compared to other parts of Indonesia.

Quoting reports, George points out that in 1988, the market price of coffee in neighboring East Nusa Tenggara was Rp 4,000 per kg, while the state-run cooperative in East Timor paid coffee growers only Rp 1,200 per kg for Robusta and Rp 1,500 per kg for Arabica coffee.

A micro credit scheme is key to building the economy, says leader Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, but first the banking infrastructure must be established.

In the meantime, East Timorese hope international NGOs would help. "We're being very careful, consulting people on what they need," says an activist of the Japanese Catholic NGO, perhaps aware of the stigma of NGOs plunking in irrelevant projects.

The East Timorese are also trying their best on their own. Small fields yield just enough for households, not worth the high transportation costs needed to sell the produce. In Dili, fields are also essential for a subsistent supply of vegetables, even if a family member works at a hotel. Goats and chickens are precious investments.

Scavenging is another occupation, involving a few hundred people at the Tibar dump outside Dili, but only aluminum cans are of value at Rp 3,000 per kg. Children must also pitch in their share of household work, such as fetching firewood and water. The town folks say they are seeing more children, who say they are helping their parents, on the streets. Reports also say many of the children are orphans of the violence in East Timor.

In Liquica, former civil servant Deflina Lim is now a restaurant owner. Of Chinese descent, she said was not entrepreneurial, "but I had to survive."

One cannot afford a cook, she says, as they want salaries of Rp 1 million per month like the salaries of the lowest paid jobs at the UN offices, while patrons are limited to international staffers in the area.

Survival has also driven Maria, a mother of five, to become a vendor at the Dili market. From her hilltop home in Becora, she travels to Mercado every morning, with Rp 25,000 to purchase five small cans of coffee to resold.

She said her husband looked after their children at home and tended to their nearby field because he was "too embarrassed" to be seen as a vendor by his friends who might drop by at the market.

"Besides the children are afraid of him, so they'll do the chores at home," she said.

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