Subject: Rural East Timor: independent but poverty-stricken

Monday 8 July 2002

The Age July 6 2002

Rural East Timor: independent but poverty-stricken

By Jill Jolliffe Maubisse East Timor

Like most country folk in East Timor, the 18,000 people of the Maubisse district are enthusiastic about independence, but worried about their future. The enormous challenges of survival they face are tougher than those facing their city counterparts.

Since the UN entered East Timor in 1999, Maubisse has become the favoured hill resort for the UN's high-spending, cosmopolitan staff. They come to this mist-shrouded mountain town to escape the stresses of Dili, staying at The Pousada, a Portuguese hotel built in the 1940s and recently restored to its magnificent best. Here, tropical vegetation gives way to rose gardens where weekenders can stroll, while others laze around the cable television as they sip fine Portuguese wines.

The terrain is dramatically beautiful, but most hamlets in view are inaccessible by road, and local people walk hours for basic needs. Telephones are unheard of, medical services are thinly stretched and one school here has four teachers for 600 children.

According to a 2001 UN survey, 60 per cent of East Timor's rural population live below the poverty line, compared with 24 per cent of urban residents. Only 20 per cent of villages have electricity. On average income, a Timorese would have to work 11 weeks to pay the $US70 ($A126) it costs to sleep one night in The Pousada.

Poverty is the greatest problem, parish priest Herminio Goncalves says. He tends an incredibly devout flock: both Sunday masses attract about 7000 people each. Faith has been reinforced by suffering.

The Maubisse graveyard shows many deaths occurred in 1975 after Indonesia's attack on Dili. There was a lot of fighting here as the Indonesian army advanced into the mountains. More recently came the horrors of 1999 militia violence during which about 3000 residents were deported to West Timor. (Most have returned and talks are underway to rescue the others.)

The twice-weekly market is thronged with betel nut-chewing local farmers, who squat around the town square with their wares laid out on the dirt. Some have travelled in by sturdy Timor pony. Others, principally women, have walked in, carrying heavy loads on their heads.

This moderate climate produces crisp green beans, mandarins, avocados, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and shallots. Livestock is traded at the back of the market, where palm wine flows generously.

A large part of Dili's fruit and vegetable supply comes from Maubisse, yet profits are meagre. "We need a price regulation body," Father Goncalves says. "Dili buyers come here and beat the farmers down. They are not getting a fair price."

It is a common complaint throughout rural East Timor, where there are few organised marketing structures.

If the economic future continues to look bleak less than two months after independence, there are signs of better times. One is the arrival of 32-year-old Dr Brigido de Deus, one of East Timor's few native doctors, fresh out of Jogjakarta University. He works for the national Timor Coffee Cooperative, which is establishing a network of clinics for its workers and the wider population.

The idealistic young medico treats 30 to 40 people a day, and runs a weekly mobile clinic to remote areas. He has no illusions about what he's up against.

The tuberculosis and infant diarrhoea rates are high, he says. Women mainly give birth at home and if there are complications they sometimes bleed to death.

But change can come, by using the radio, schools and church structures to educate people, he believes, so that the lives of Maubisse's next generation will be better.

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