In the Aileu valley, high in the mountains of Timor-Leste, ponies graze on fertile pasture surrounded by plantations of coffee and corn. A wide river basin in a country of peaks and ravines, it is both cooler and quieter here than in the capital Dili. But modernity intrudes on this bucolic scene.
Downstream on the Mantane river, a Chinese company quarries gravel while, nearby, a line of people queue up at a small office building for seasonal work in Australia.
For all the area’s brimming coffee plantations, Aileu is poor. Two-thirds of Timorese rely on subsistence farming: here, the proportion seems much higher. And locals say small farmers or coffee-plantation owners receive little help from the government.
“Some people have no knowledge of how to plant and to produce good quality vegetables,” says Adelaida di Carvalho, a subsistence farmer and the first female chief of the village and sub-district of Lausi. “There is no investment in this sector, which is so big.”
She believes the state could help in other ways, too. Nearby is one of eight water pumps stamped with the flag of the EU, which also recently donated $5.5 million to Unicef child nutrition programmes in Timor-Leste. Down the road, schoolchildren troop to school in yellow uniforms over a bridge that has been in disrepair for three years.
"We have no roads here," says Juliana Imaculada, the village chief of nearby Manucasa. "During the rainy season the nurses can't come here. Pregnant women can't go to hospital in time."
Imaculada, who conducts our interview while breastfeeding her youngest child, says a local teacher drowned last year when fording the Betabu river, a tributary of the Mantane, en route to give birth in Aileu. “Another pregnant woman died the previous year in the same way,” she adds.
Here, scarcely 15km from the capital Dili, as the crow flies, there are no ambulances, and no paved roads on which to drive them. Public transport in Manucasa comprises one open-backed truck that drives to Aileu once a week on a mountainous dirt road that would defeat most vehicles.
Priority of education
Di Carvalho and Imaculada work with Plan International and women's action group Fada to increase female participation in politics. In 2016, 21 women were elected as village chiefs in Aileu district, part of a bid to direct the minds of lawmakers in Dili to local issues.
Education is also a priority for female village chiefs. Timorese children attend school in morning or afternoon shifts due to a lack of classrooms. “We need children getting eight hours of education,” di Carvalho says. “I want young women to go to university.”
If local communities lack government support, it's not down to a lack of central funds. Next month, Timor-Leste will mark the 17th anniversary of the restoration of its independence from Indonesia. For a new country of 1.3 million people, its coffers are in relatively rude health, with $17 billion (€15 billion) in the state's sovereign petroleum fund, fed by the rapidly depleting Bayu-Undan oilfield. The much larger Greater Sunrise oilfield promises even higher revenues.
However, the government’s stated priorities of education, health, agriculture and clean water all receive less than a combined 20 per cent of the 2019 budget of $1.48 billion. The rest goes on administration, security and, above all, on large-scale infrastructure – the area around Dili is criss-crossed with half-built, outsize carriageways, including a planned highway through Aileu.
The lion’s share of spending has gone to the government’s “grande projets”: a special economic zone at Oecussi (receiving an average of $166 million in the last three years, double that spent on health); and $800 million in eight years on a controversial port at Tibar, which is still under construction.
Insignificance of coffee
Yet they, in turn, are dwarfed by the Tasi Mane project, a controversial scheme to harvest the Greater Sunrise oilfield by building an entire oil industry from scratch. It carries a price tag of up to $16 billion – about the size of the existing petroleum fund.
“Why doesn’t the budget reflect the government’s own promises on spending?” asks Adilson da Costa of civic watchdog La’o Hamutuk. “They’re just building roads and airports for rich people. The budget has gone up but money spent on basic services is the same.”
Asked why the government does not spend more on agriculture and small businesses, legal reform minister Fidelis Magalhães says people need to come out of agriculture for the country to develop. He dismisses the nascent coffee industry as insignificant.
“Remittances bring in more money than coffee – [they amount to] $75 million a year,” he says. “In a decade, it has unseated coffee as our main non-petroleum income source.”
Magalhães says the government is not interested in small-scale investment in classrooms, health or water. “We’re not interested in fixing potholes. The amount [needed] is so huge, that if you do just little by little . . . you’re wasting your time.”
Yet he also argues that foreign aid for these areas should be classified as government spending, citing it as “an accounting error”.
Opposition party Fretilin and some NGOs say it’s more serious than that, and accuse the AMP-led government of spending the country’s inheritance on projects that benefit foreign contractors, and do nothing for places like Aileu – or the 40 per cent of the population living in dire poverty.
In the meantime, this disconnect is spurring new local leadership. “Things can change,” di Carvalho adds. “People were saying I was only a woman, that I couldn’t possibly run a village. But I felt I could do it. I had the spirit.”
* This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media fund
Clean water, dumps and healthcare in Timor-Leste
More than half of all Timorese do not have a flush toilet, and a quarter have no access to clean water, yet just 1 per cent of the country’s budget for 2019 is spent on clean water. Watchdog body La’o Hamutuk says the government is doing “essentially nothing” for water or rural sanitation.
The World Health Organisation has also criticised the government for failing to implement controlled tipping at the country's smouldering, seven-acre landfill site in Tibar. There, children clamber among hazardous waste and asbestos less than 10 minutes' drive from where a $300million (€265 million) port is under construction.
Former president Jose Ramos-Horta, a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner and a strong supporter of the AMP government, bridles at media coverage of Tibar. “The children there are not scavenging for food,” he says. “They clean metal tins and sell them. They go to school, too – some in the morning and some in the afternoon.” He is also emphatic in listing the country’s health achievements, insisting that the WHO has certified the country as free from leprosy.
Cases of leprosy
A different reality is on show at the Bairo Pite health clinic in Dili, set up amid countrywide violence in 1999 by the storied American Dr Dan Murphy. He sees up to 300 patients each day and, during his ward round, pauses to speak gently in Tetum to a stricken man with bandages around his right hand.
“Now you probably haven’t seen this before,” Murphy says. “His hand is damaged because there is no feeling, and he keeps hurting it. It’s Hansen’s disease. Leprosy.”
He says there are about 500 cases of leprosy confirmed in Oecussi alone, but that child malnutrition and TB are bigger problems. More than half of children in Timor-Leste under five are malnourished, partly due to poor sanitation: 65 die from diarrhoea alone each year.
Yet healthcare receives 5 per cent of the 2019 Timor-Leste budget. Politicians recently signed an agreement to allow their children to avail of healthcare in Malaysia. "There is a deficiency in problem-solving ability among the politicians here," Murphy adds. "But then I've no faith in men running a country."