Source: Público Date: 29 February 2000 Dateline: Ermera, Timor Lorosae Byline: Luciano Alvarez Scope: Unabridged Headline: No agreement yet on the price (among other things)

Rui Nabeiro was prepared to buy up the remaining coffee bean stocks that the Ermera growers still had left from their 1999 crops. The businessman from Campo Maior [Portugal] might buy about 100 tons, but the deal had not yet been finalised. The price still had to be agreed, and a certificate obtained before the Timorese coffee can leave the country. A lot still has to be achieved if the future relationship between businessman and growers is to flourish. Nabeiro will have to learn to speak a language the Timorese can understand: "stock exchange", "quotations", "markets", and "electronic machinery" are words that are not yet in everyday usage in the coffee plantations of Timor Lorosae.

There is not a lot of coffee. Its handling is very poor and the quality will only be known after more detailed analysis. Even so, Rui Nabeiro agreed to buy up the coffee that the growers of Ermera ­ one of Timor Lorosae´s coffee-growing regions ­ still have in the warehouses. But the deal was not finalised yesterday. Agreement still has to be reached on the price, who does the podding, storage, transport and, most important, who will issue the international certificate identifying the coffee and its origin so it can be shipped to Europe.

The CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance) had asked coffee growers not to sell their 1999 harvest to the US company NCVA that, in the final years of Indonesia´s occupation, had a monopoly on coffee exports in Timor Lorosae. According to the CNRT, a better buyer would eventually turn up. However, because the coffee was harvested in late June, and the violence that swept the territory last year badly affected the growers, they had no choice but to sell what they had to the Americans. The price, after the September violence, was in the region of 2,500/3,000 rupees (between 80 and 90 Escudos) per kilo, while nowadays the NCVA is offering 6,000 rupees (190 Escudos) per kilo. The growers do not think this is a bad price, especially since the US company buys the beans still in the pod, and has never treated the growers badly. In fact, they even built clinics in some plantations where the local population could go for treatment. Perhaps that is why when Rui Nabeiro arrived in Ermera yesterday, there were less than 50 people waiting for him, in spite of the fact that the CNRT had alerted the local leaders that the buyer they had been promising was finally on the way.

Soon after his arrival, a sack of coffee still in the pod was placed before him. Nabeiro sniffed the coffee, podded a few beans, and scratched some with his fingernails. "This has to be podded. Don´t you have any ‘clean´ coffee?", asked Nabeiro. They did, and two plastic bags containing 2 kilos of podded coffee were brought to him. After inspecting the coffee, Nabeiro launched into the first lesson: "You ought to set up a cooperative here where the coffee could be podded. We would not mind supplying the machinery. The coffee has to leave here clean, because then is will be worth double." Among the few people present, only Joao Carrascalao, the CNRT vice-president who was accompany the businessman´s visit, was paying attention to what Nabeiro was saying, not least because only a few people understood Portuguese.

The ‘crusher´ and sky-high prices

Nabeiro and Carrascalao met later with more small-scale growers. The CNRT representative explained that Nabeiro was a "friend businessman", why he had come to Ermera, and revealed that he had even promised to repair the school in Faite, which is on the road to Ermera. Then Nabeiro spoke. Once again he stressed the importance of establishing a cooperative, and the need to make raise the value of their coffee. He talked about the international market, electrical machinery, the coffee industry, price variation, certificates of origin, and about himself: "I did not come here by chance. The very fact that I am here is a sign that I think your coffee is good. I am also here to help you and I am prepared to send all the coffee you have here back to Portugal ­ but only once it has been podded." This confused the growers, even after it had been translated into Tetun from Portuguese, but they were still eager to join in the questions and answers session that followed. The first grower to speak explained to Nabeiro that the Americans used to buy the coffee even though it had not been podded, and that they only had a "traditional machine": "We only have the ‘crusher´. It has always been that way, and now after all the destruction, thing´s are even worse."

The next coffee grower to speak told Rui Nabeiro that the Americans "buy podded coffee" at 18,000 rupees (about 360 Escudos) per kilo. The businessman´s mouth dropped open in amazement. Only the reporters realised why. Just before this meeting, Nabeiro had told them that he buys "the best quality coffee" at 190 escudos per kilo, without even having to step outside his office, and the product is delivered to the factory in top condition.

Rui Nabeiro mentioned, once again, the international coffee markets, the fact that they set the prices, and the importance of competition, but this was terminology that the small coffee growers just did not understand. Things only improved when Rui Nabeiro said he would buy the all the coffee still in the region, with or without pods, and that he agreed to buy what the Americans did not want. At this point excitement filled the room. Straightaway, Nabeiro was told that there must be about one hundred tons of coffee in the region, and asked what price he was prepared to pay. "First I have to go and check the market prices, and in one or two days I will give you an answer". This did not satisfy the growers. "It would be good if that list of prices was not kept in your pocket, but shown to us too", one of the growers told Rui Nabeiro. Joao Carrascalao promised to issue them an official note from the CNRT stating what the international market prices were.

And Rui Nabeiro left Ermera, probably thinking to himself that buying coffee in Timor Lorosae was not, after all, as easy as it had first appeared. Today, he is going to the region of Liquica, another big coffee growing area….

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