Subject: CT: E.Timor - No More Walks Up a Mountain For Water

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

Canberra Times (Australia)

Saturday, May 24, 2003

No more walks up a mountain for water

East Timor is progressing slowly in building a nation from nothing, writes Brad Collis.

THE FUTURE has come to 10-year-old Alberto Mau- asa's front yard. It stands in the form of a brass tap that stands glinting amid the muddy chaos of chooks, pigs, goats, and children.

In the tiny village of Miguir in western East Timor, women and children no longer have to trudge 3km up a mountain for household water. And no-one has to compete any more with pigs in the shared toilet space. A cement seat above a self-composting pit, inside a bamboo hut that Alberto's father has just finished building, completes the arrival of modern living in Miguir.

The last taps and storage tanks, stencilled with AusAID kangaroos, were installed a couple of months ago, leading this village, at least, to believe that development in East Timor is possible.

'Water and sanitation is progress,' the head of the village's water committee, Manuel Vincente, says. More than 70 per cent of the country's 442 villages don't have a water supply, and are not likely to for perhaps decades. Ask the villagers in 'modern' Miguir how they feel their new country is faring as it celebrates the first anniversary of its first elected government and even they shrug uncertainly.

East Timor is a fragile democracy facing a seemingly impossible development task and the villagers know it.

There are no manuals on how to build a nation from nothing - especially a small, resource-poor country only now emerging from repression and war. However, the story of East Timor's struggle to build a basis for its future and to somehow meet the exuberant expectations of a people suddenly freed of tyranny, is likely to become a familiar tale around the world in coming years.

The problem is that the devastation that accompanied Indonesia's withdrawal left the nation with almost no serviceable commerce or public infrastructure. The destruction of buildings and businesses meant also the end of jobs, leaving almost 80 per cent of the potential workforce still unemployed three years later.

Aid workers meeting for coffee in rebuilt Dili cafes, roped off from urchins selling cigarettes and phone cards believe the situation will get much worse before economic life improves.

Basically, East Timor needs an economy and no-one seems to know where it will find one.

It sells a little coffee from neglected, almost wild, plantations, and has rights to gas in the Timor Sea - though Australia stands accused of bullying it into accepting a smaller portion than many felt it was entitled to.

The main hope lies with agriculture - on rugged, semi-arid and nutrient-poor land like that in Australia's far north-west.

Consider then the position of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. It doesn't have a single agricultural economist; in fact apart from the minister, Estanislau da Silva, it doesn't have much expertise at all. Da Silva was a research agronomist with NSW Agriculture before returning to try to turn what independence leader Xanana Gusmao called 'our island prison' into a functioning nation.

Da Silva concedes the job of first finding a niche market that East Timor might be able to supply, and then establishing a production system, needs a lot of faith. Fortunately faith is the one thing this Catholic country does have in large amounts.

None the less, East Timor is a troubling example of how hard it is for war-ravaged communities to recover in a world dominated by competitive market economics.

Da Silva explains that agriculture in East Timor is based on household production systems. Turning these into competitive industries will require a sociological, technological and economic revolution.

He's not putting too much hope on this happening in his lifetime. His first job is to actually achieve household food security, to try to eliminate the cost of importing staple foods such as rice, and then to look for export opportunities.

'Yes, we have to export, but what? We don't know yet,' he says frankly. 'Our only export product at the moment is coffee, but the plantations are old and the quality is not as good as it used to be.'

Even so, the livelihood of more than 200,000 people in East Timor depends entirely on coffee, introduced in the early 19th century by the Portuguese. Because it is the country's only export, much has been made of its potential, but da Silva understands its precarious position.

World coffee prices are falling, current exporters are either running at a loss or being propped up by donors, the product is expensive because East Timor's currency is the US dollar, and an insect-borne disease is killing the necessary shade trees.

Compounding this is a near- absence of civil infrastructure in rural areas, where most Timorese live. The Indonesian administration built about 3200km of sealed roads, and the East Timor Government calculates it can perhaps afford to keep 1200km open.

Da Silva is looking to outside investors to see what they can achieve. He optimistically counts opportunities off the tops of his fingers - vanilla, soya beans, mung beans, fruit, palm oil. None of these are going to set agribusiness hearts in Sydney, Lisbon or New York fluttering.

The country's future lies somewhere through the shimmer of improbable hopes, along a path that's difficult to see, yet it manages to draw enough believers from within and from outside who are committing themselves to make the struggle worth while.

It's a place where aid money and the efforts of volunteers do make a difference to the daily lives of ordinary people, such as the villagers in Miguir. For many that's the only reason they need for being there.

One of the first Australian civilians to arrive on the heels of the retreating militia was a former CSIRO plant breeder, Dr Brian Palmer. 'I had spent 20 years as a research scientist,' he says. 'Now was a chance to put it to real use.' He has many crop trials scattered across the country.

He thought he'd spend a few months there. Three years later he's living almost as frugally as the farmers he's trying to help and now wonders if he'll ever leave. He's a valued adviser to both da Silva and President Xanana Gusmao and has a string of experiments that he hopes will be the basis for new, improved farming systems.

He works as a volunteer for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and its Seeds of Life program that stopped famine from being added to the horror of the 1999 violence. Most of the seed that farmers had stored. In a remarkable response, the centre enlisted the support of the world's five leading crop-research institutes and soon the first seeds were going into the ground. The seed - for rice, maize, sweet potato, peanuts, beans, and cassava - was the product of the latest agricultural science: high-yielding, disease-resistant cultivars that might otherwise have remained beyond the reach of East Timorese farmers for decades.

Palmer's job since that initial effort has been to determine the most suitable varieties, agronomically and culturally. He is wary of imposing his own expectations. He argues, in the face of sometimes heated criticism from impatient aid organisations, that change will succeed only if it is adopted willingly.

'Our new high-yielding maize is yellow,' he says. 'The traditional variety here is white. Now it's not up to me to tell them to change. What is up to me is to demonstrate the performance of the new crop and then leave the, hopefully obvious, decision to them.'

He says he simply wants to lift agriculture to a level from which East Timor's young graduates can pick it up - an ambition that came a step closer in February with the restoration of the University of East Timor's agriculture faculty.

There are four second-hand computers for 1200 students in six lecture rooms. 'We're still in the chalk-and-talk days,' says the dean, Flavian Soares. 'But given that everything was destroyed, we're actually making good progress.'

The university's curriculum has an emphasis on practical skills and graduates are expected to return home to help develop their communities. Most are the first generation to be schooled and come from illiterate farming households. They understand the challenges ahead, but as children they knew only war and violence, so they are conscious of the responsibility they carry as survivors.

Most of the faculty's senior students are in their mid- to late 20s, their education broken by the events of the past four years and the destruction of the university after the independence vote. As teenagers many had belonged to the Falintil's clandestine courier network. More recently they were part of the youth movement mobilised to explain democracy and the referendum that was to unleash the Indonesian military's fury.

By the age of 15, aspiring agronomist Sipriano Martins had acquired the code name Saruntu, 'fight like a crazy man'. Now at 24 his ambition is to take new cultivation methods back to his coffee- and vanilla-growing village.

Eusebio Gomes, 28, was in school on November 12, 1991, when he heard the gunfire of Indonesian troops firing on a peaceful memorial procession to Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery. More than 270 people were killed and a further 250-plus disappeared in follow-up action. Eusebio's father was among the many arrested after the procession and he spent the next 1 years in prison.

Aluiziu Assis, 24, is impatient to take his knowledge of animal disease and vaccines back to his home town, Manatuto. 'We're optimistic about the future because we have learned already that we can make change,' he says, ' and from now on it's going to be Timorese helping Timorese.'

Soares sees his students as embodying the country's new circumstances: 'We are facing the need, and the opportunity, to think differently. Before, everything we did was controlled. When many of these students started university their motivation was political change. Now their motivation is economic change. Science and economic competition are the worlds in which we now have to think and work.'

This is the new language of the city. In the farms and villages life in the main remains mostly unchanged. Palmer observes that freedom and democracy were presented as a panacea for the country's long suffering. 'I think it's only now starting to dawn that these changes are only an opportunity, that nothing will be achieved if the people themselves don't make it happen.'

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