A taste of things to come for subsistence coffee farmers in Timor-Leste
Training may be key to improving the lot of impoverished rural population
As the largest private employer in Timor-Leste, CCT has about 250 full-time staff, with the addition of about 2,500 during harvesting season. Using the proceeds from coffee sales, CCT has established Clinic Café Timor, a rural healthcare network of seven clinics and 24 mobile services providing healthcare for people in the remote rural coffee growing regions, many of whom do not have access to public health services.
As is to be expected in a country emerging from the ashes of conflict, the challenges facing Timor-Leste are significant. The drive from Ermera to Dili – known as the country’s “coffee corridor” – is not for the faint-hearted with open-top coffee trucks, laden with farmers, hurtling down the precipitous, potholed route.
Near Gleno, we came upon a truck that had keeled over on a bend, throwing those in the back down a ravine, killing two. This is an all too frequent occurrence. Adelino dos Santos Martins, headmaster of the secondary school in Ermera town, says roads must be improved if people are to be able to sell their products in the markets in Dili.
Another significant obstacle to trade is the lack of legal title. Most land is held under customary practices, leading Oxfam to characterise Timor-Leste’s coffee producers as “gatherers rather than growers”. The government approved a land law last July with a view to legally regulating communal land, but the initial focus is on urban areas. Fernando Egidio Amaral, national director in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, says “people won’t invest in land that they don’t know for sure is theirs”.
In addressing rural poverty, the government’s 20-year strategic development plan takes a broad approach. Fidelis Magalhaes, president Taur Matan Ruak’s charismatic chief of staff, says the priority is to move beyond subsistence farming. “Cash crops such as coffee offer little in terms of nutrition. The priority instead is to address the country’s chronic malnutrition through diversification so as to ensure families avoid suffering seasonal poverty.”
The government also wants to reduce reliance on a volatile commodity. World coffee prices have plummeted in recent years, leaving households vulnerable to the vagaries of international markets. In line with global prices, the wholesale price of one kilo of coffee in Timor-Leste dropped by 30 per cent from 2012 to 2013.
But there are bright clouds on the horizon. The East Timor Coffee Institute, set up in 2003, is training a new generation of farmers on best practices in coffee production and how best to diversify their crop base.
The newly accredited third-level institutehas 120 students due to graduate in 2013. The hope is that they will return home and share best practices with their communities.
Rector of the institute Lucio Marcal Gomes is confident that better management of plantations and farms will lead to better yields and so improve the income of communities.