Armindo de Deus has worked all his life as a coffee farmer in the Ermera district of Timor-Leste. He is a wiry, weather-beaten man with darting, milky eyes. When asked what his family's other sources of income are, he looks puzzled.
“We are coffee farmers,” he says, gesturing towards his daughter Elsa who is sifting through the coffee cherries spread out to dry. “Our life is coffee; we grow old with coffee and we are buried amid coffee.”
The mountainous coffee-growing Ermera district is a world away from the capital Dili, where today, 11 years after independence, a small emerging middle class can be found sipping on piccolo lattes and frothy macchiatos at Gloria Jeans Coffee, the country’s first international coffee shop.
And no place better demonstrates how little the rural poor have benefited to date from Timor-Leste’s remarkable natural resource wealth than Ermera, the second most populous district. Here almost 90 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers who gain their income from coffee. Poverty levels are high and the 2010 census confirmed that the district has the lowest levels of literacy in the country.
And this is in the context of a desperately underdeveloped country. Timor-Leste ranked 134 in the 2012 United Nations Development Programme human development index, which measures a combination of life expectancy, educational attainment and income.
Now in his late 50s, Armindo de Deus presides over a household of nine. Becoming an agent for TimorCorp six years ago marked a change in his fortunes. Today he has a small concrete house and a hand-operated coffee pulping machine.
As a coffee agent, he buys coffee cherries from local families who navigate the difficult mountain terrain every day during the three-month harvest season. All cherries are handpicked and in the late afternoon, a steady trail of people can be seen making their way back to their villages carting their crop in bags and baskets.
That coffee is important to Timor-Leste is clear. It has long been the country’s leading agricultural commodity with almost 30 per cent of households nationwide reliant on the crop for their income. It is also Timor-Leste’s second largest export, accounting for US$10 (€7.30) for every US$11 (€8) of non-oil exports.
However, what is also evident is that a disproportionate percentage of coffee farmers in Timor-Leste live below the poverty line. A recent study funded by the Australian government found that two thirds of coffee-dependent households surveyed in Ermera district earned US$250 (€183) or less from their annual coffee harvest.
Recognising the potential of coffee to improve livelihoods in Timor-Leste, a 2010 study by the World Bank said "managed correctly, coffee has the greatest potential for both increasing export earnings and reducing poverty". The phrase "managed correctly" however is a significant caveat.
During the country's fight for independence, coffee cultivation suffered years of neglect, with plantations serving as battlefields. Today, the impact of this neglect remains evident. Due to insufficient attention paid to the pruning and planting of new coffee trees, a significant number are producing poor quality hybrid coffee. The country's yields are half those of nearby Papua New Guinea.
While this is principally due to a lack of education, it is also a case of need. Rehabilitation of trees leads to a short-term fall in productive capacity, giving little incentive to households urgently needing income at the onset of the harvest season. TimorCorp general manager James Rutherford says "people tend to see coffee as a money tree in their back garden".
At the Co-operativa Café Timor (CCT) centre in Railaco, Dr Aris Wibawa, a longtime expert on coffee rehabilitation, explains that a coffee tree in Timor-Leste yields an annual average of 600 grams of cherry. After rehabilitation, within three years the tree's yield will increase to about 2kg. This means a plot of 2,500 trees per hectare that currently yields $510 per annum could earn $1,700 after pruning.
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.