Subject: GU: Evicted farmers had to start from scratch

Evicted farmers had to start from scratch

John Vidal in Dili, East Timor Saturday December 11, 2004 The Guardian

The only way to reach the village of Fatuhei in East Timor is a four-hour hike over tropical mountains. You are then in one of south-east Asia's most isolated places - seven miles from the nearest school and health clinic, 10 from a rudimentary road, and 20 from any public transport.

Fatuhei is one of hundreds of highland villages forcibly evicted by the Indonesian army when it occupied East Timor in 1975. Twenty-four years later in 1999, when the colonisers were thrown out after a long resistance, Jose da Costa led a group of peasant farmers from Fatuhei over the mountains to reclaim it.

It was a traumatic return. What he and his friends found was little more than a deserted hillside.

Fatuhei had not been burned like many other villages but almost all the abandoned houses had collapsed, the terraces and paddy fields were overgrown or had fallen down, much of the land had been deforested and the soils were eroding rapidly. East Timor had become the youngest country in the world, and Fatuhei had to start again.

"I kept telling my children that one day we would go back to our land and be free. We had been oppressed for so long," said Mr da Costa.

The men began by building small shelters and digging the land almost with their bare hands, only later calling for their families to join them. Without money, tools, seeds or often the skills to farm, they had to walk miles to collect dirty water, and rebuilt their houses as they could.

Today, the 120 subsistence farmers and their families who have returned to Fatuhei are some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world, with some of the lowest literacy levels, the highest child mortality and worst malnutrition in Asia.

But they are also some of the most satisfied and proud.

"Despite our isolation and our problems we love it here. We have our freedom but now we have another struggle - to develop," said Mr da Costa.

Paul Moreira, chief of the larger community village of Matoreki, said: "When people first came back we didn't know how to farm. People had run away to the forests from the Indonesians, so they did not learn how to farm. We have our land back now but we are only now learning how to use it."

"Fatuhei and much of East Timor has lost 25 years," said Peter Njoroge, a Kenyan working with the development charity Concern, which is trying to jump-start the economy in 40 mountain communities in the area, including Fatuhei. "We just go straight to what they say they want."

Each community last year prioritised its needs. All put clean water, seeds, tools and the need for technical training at the top but people also wanted to know how to conserve the soil, farm better, and above all gain a measure of independence by earning money.

Concern is training people how to grow cash crops, build terraces, make fish farms, construct clean water and irrigation systems, set up micro-credit schemes and small shops, work with livestock, and repair tracks.

Almost all the communities now have safe water and the charity is paying for schools and health clinics to be rebuilt. Seeds and tools have been handed out, and hundreds of people are learning to read and write.

"We went for the intensive approach," said Mr Njoroge. "The villagers had no money, but they provide all the labour and local materials. We find the rest. But every bag of cement or nail needed in a place like Fatuhei has to be carried more than 10 miles. No one can doubt their determination to improve their lives."

One major problem, he said, was the need to overcome the dependency culture which had built up over 25 years of Indonesian rule.

"They did not want the East Timorese to be food-secure but to be dependent on them for everything. It was a way to control them. They moved people round so they could not farm, gave them free or subsidised food and kerosene.

"There had been a huge decline in skills and people had forgotten how to do things. Changing that mentality is hard. They began by expecting us to hand out everything, but now they they have to do it themselves."

Mr Moreira added: "The years people spent in the forests were hard, but it will be harder still to develop the country. The struggle for real independence starts now."

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