Subject: Guardian: E. Timor in Desperate Need of Rebuilding After Centuries of Occupation

The Guardian (UK) Tuesday, December 28, 2004

East Timor's The Road to Recovery

After 25 years of repression and persecution, the tiny country of East Timor is racked with poverty and in desperate need of rebuilding. John Vidal on the efforts being made to help the Timorese stand on their own two feet

Justin was born last month in Dili, East Timor's capital city. There was nothing extraordinary about the birth itself: baby Justin - named after American pop star Justin Timberlake - came kicking into the December tropical heat with the help of a Filipino doctor and a local midwife. Nor were the parents unusual: Feanando and Abral Soarez were both young, healthy and happy. The hospital, too, was pretty well equipped for a poor country, even though it did not stretch to anaesthesia for women giving birth.

But Justin's birth was, all the same, a little bit remarkable. East Timor, the world's youngest country, is still emerging from a generation of harsh Indonesian rule which saw up to 200,000 people killed in 25 years, systematic torture, large-scale relocations of people and rampant human rights abuses.

Between 1975 and 1999, many of its present population of roughly 900,000 were displaced, hid in the forests or fled the country. Hundreds of villages and schools were burned down, and tens of thousands of young women were forcibly sterilised under the guise of "family planning". Full independence was gained only in 2002.

Life will be tough for Justin, just as it will be for baby East Timor. The fledgling country is one of the 10 poorest in the world and has the highest birth rate. Almost everyone scratches a living from subsistence farming and barely profitable coffee growing, and the inter- national donors, so keen to help at the high-profile birth, are now less easy to attract.

UN statistics suggest that a Timorese baby like Justin will on average have seven brothers and sisters, one of whom one will die within a year of birth and another by the age of five. If his father earns the national average wage, he will have about 50p a day to spend. The baby has an 80% chance of going to school, but only a 50-50 chance of learning to read and write. He will share a teacher with 62 other children in a school that will probably have no desks or teaching materials.

Moreover, one in eight of the children he will grow up with will have moderate or severe physical stunting because of a poor diet, and half will have chronic malnutrition. It is most likely that Justin will live without electricity or possessions, and will eat just one meal a day for life.

Things may sound bad, but in fact East Timor is in the process of being rebuilt on a wave of enthusiasm. Five hours' drive south of Dili is Turiscai, a typical farming area of 40 highland villages, where more than 6,000people live in conditions that would appear to have changed little in 100 years.

The majority of people sleep without mattresses, and everyone eats wild food in the "hungry months" between harvests. Paulo do Carmo fled his home in the village of Fatuhei during the years of conflict. "We returned from exile to an empty place in 2000," he says. "The problem was that we did not even have water or food. There were no houses left. Everything had gone." But he and his fellow villagers began to rebuild, working - like many others across the country - without tools. "It took us a month just to carry the cement and materials over the mountain to build our water supplies, or our houses. We carried it on our backs."

"We are trying to help jump-start development," says Peter Njorje of Concern, which is the Guardian's choice of international charity this year. "Twenty-five years have been lost here. When we came, we asked people to prioritise what they most needed. The list was long. They were starting from nothing and needed everything from roads to schools, training, clean water, seeds, tools, finance, new skills, shops, animals, and more.

"Their commitment is total. They give all they have, which is their labour. To start with, they expected us to provide everything. Now they can see what we are doing and we are working together to develop ways they can stand on their own. They have formed themselves into interest groups. We provide the training and the materials, they provide the rest. It's beginning to work really well."

This ambitious project, being duplicated by Concern in 20 other remote villages in the east of the country, is bearing fruit. Almost everyone now has clean water and there is less illness. Schools and roads are being rebuilt, new shops set up, terraces are being repaired, better farming methods introduced and money-making enterprises such as carpentry, fish farming and egg production have started.

"But people's mentality has had to change. They are now beginning to lose the dependency culture that the Indonesians promoted for a generation. They have political independence, but they still have mental dependence on others," says Njorge.

Since the Indonesian withdrawal, more than $3bn in aid has gone to East Timor, says Thomas Freitas of the local watchdog group La'o Hamutuk, but hardly any of that has benefited the poor. "Billions have been spent but very little has gone to help people. The vast majority has gone on international peacekeeping forces and the UN police. Highly paid foreign consultants, wages for international staff, foreign contractors and supplies procured outside the country account for most of the rest. The local people and economy has hardly benefited."

In addition, aid is getting increasingly difficult to attract, and a fierce debate is taking place in Dili over the kind of development East Timor should pursue. Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, formerly a clandestine resistance leader, now the head of Haboras, the country's leading environmental and civil rights organisation, says he fears that the government is not learning from the failures of other small countries in a globalised world.

"We are coming into a new area of resistance. This is a nation of small farmers, yet the government wants intensive farming which takes sustainability away from people. They have tons of advisers from every country in the world. Yet we cannot compete on the world market.

"We may be exchanging one form of colonial dependency for another. We used to have only one enemy, the Indonesians. Now we have to take on big institutions and countries. Indonesia was able to compete with the big companies, but I fear that we cannot. We are open to be dominated by outsiders." Already, he says, East Timor is dependent on other countries for food, power, money, communications and even mineral water.

The only hope the country has of becoming genuinely independent, it is widely agreed, is to develop the vast oil and gas deposits known to exist in the Timor Gap, the sea area between East Timor and Australia. In May 2002 the governments of both countries signed a treaty that gives East Timor 90% of the reserves in one of the Gap's largest petroleum development areas.

This may sound a lot, but these reserves are only worth about $50m a year to East Timor; still in dispute is Greater Sunrise, one of the Timor Sea's largest known gas reserves, estimated to be worth at least $36bn. Eighty per cent of this gas reserve comes under Australian jurisdiction, according to a historic agreement between Australia and Indonesia, but East Timor has a powerful legal claim on the field which, conservatively, is worth at least $12bn to the country over the next 20 years.

Australia is already earning $1m a day from the field and has offered to buy Timor out for a one-off payment of $4bn. It has led to a furious row and to Australia being accused of bullying its minute neighbour.

"Australia is acting unfairly and unlawfully. They think they can do anything they like. Their arguments are legally baseless," says the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri. "We are very dependent on oil. They are very powerful and we are struggling for independence They come here to tell us that we should have a country with a rule of law, but there is no law for them."

Timor may one day secure its independence through oil money, but it could be another 20 years before the dispute is settled, the facilities are built and the money starts to reach the people who most need it. In the meantime, baby Justin needs as much help as he can get to stand on his own.

Support ETAN, make a secure financial contribution at

Back to December menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu