Subject: Timor-Leste's farmers start again

Timor-Leste's farmers start again

Monday June 15th 2009

Matt Crook visits Timor-Leste to see how farmers in the "coffee triangle" are benefiting from an initiative backed by the US Agency for International Development that will see new coffee trees distributed to 1,200 farms. The revival of Timor-Leste's traditional coffee crop will be crucial for the country's economic recovery

Marcal Mendonca is taking a chance on coffee. As he stands proudly in front of his new nursery in Aileu district, Timor-Leste, he says raising seedlings is a first for him, but he’s optimistic that it will be worth the time and effort. “I’m doing this partly to get money, but also to help other farmers and to rehabilitate my own farm,” said Mendonca, 46, who has six children.

Mendonca is in charge of producing 15,000 coffee seedlings, with support from the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) and Cooperativa Cafe Timor (CCT), a 21,000-member organic coffee co-operative.

A short drive away, 28-year-old ­Alberto de Jesus is growing 10,000 coffee tree seedlings and 5,000 shade tree seedlings, which will provide vital shade for crops. “I’m doing this for my family, my friends and also to make a bit of money,” he said.

Farmers in Timor-Leste’s “coffee triangle” between Ermera, Maubisse and Same are being taught how to grow coffee from scratch. The target is 300,000 seedlings. Mendonca and De Jesus are free to do as they please with their harvest, but for every seedling they sell to the NCBA, they’ll get 10 cents. The seedlings should be good to go by January.

After farmers sell their seedlings to the NCBA, they will be distributed to members of the CCT. This year, the plan is to get new coffee trees to 1,200 farms. Rehabilitating the long-neglected industry is a central component of the $17.5m Timor economic rehabilitation programme, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAid).

The programme allows the NCBA to support the CCT’s work in rejuvenating the coffee industry and providing basic health services to rural communities in the coffee-growing regions, as well as developing other exports such as vanilla, cloves and cattle.

Mark White of USAid says that supporting Timor-Leste’s coffee industry is vital. “Coffee is the backbone of Timor-Leste’s non-oil economy and it puts money into Timorese farmers’ pockets. Supporting Cooperativa Cafe Timor is one of the most productive USAid-supported economic initiatives in the country.”

Coffee accounts for about 90% of Timor-Leste’s non-oil exports. Introduced by the Portuguese in the 19th century, the coffee industry was severely neglected due to the Indonesian military occupation of Timor-Leste from 1975 until 1999. When Shane McCar­thy, co-operative agribusiness adviser for NCBA, came to Timor-Leste in 2003, an epidemic of gall rust, a disease caused by fungus, had infected up to 90% of the country’s coffee shade trees. That figure is now about 98%.

Other countries have faced the same problem. In Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and the Philippines, for example, farmers had to cut down millions of shade trees. But for some reason Timor-Leste’s trees aren’t ­dying yet. “We don’t know why, but they are old trees and they have already exceeded their lifespan, so Timor-Leste will still have to confront the problem eventually,” McCar­thy said.

The other concern is that the shade trees – Paraserianthes falcataria – are enormous, with trunk circumferences of up to eight metres. Timor-Leste just doesn’t have the resources, expertise or budget to do anything about the 2.5m trees that are infected.

“We are dedicating most of our energy to getting old coffee trees pruned or removed and replaced,” said ­McCarthy. This is where Mendonca and De Jesus’s seedlings come in. “A few years ago we had a bad year – there just weren’t a lot of beans – and so that’s when everyone finally began to accept and agree that there was an urgent need to plant new coffee trees,” McCarthy said.

Among the organisations supporting small coffee producers in Timor-Leste is Oxfam, which has based its projects in Covalima and Oecussi districts. Oxfam provides assistance to vulnerable groups of mainly subsistence farmers to diversify and grow a range of cash crops including coffee and coffee shade trees, as well as other types of trees.

“We recommend a range of coffee shade trees and help the groups collect the seeds, show them how to set up a tree nursery and then how to plant out the trees. They get their own coffee seeds so with some technical support it becomes sustainable and replicable. They have their own resources and we don’t need to bring more in,” said Lynne Kennedy, the livelihood and food security co-ordinator.

Marcelino da Costa Belo is Oxfam’s livelihood programme co-ordinator. “Many people are happy to be growing coffee again. It’s a long-term cash crop and it starts to produce in three to five years. They know there’s a market and they know they can sell it. The farmers have seen other people doing it, so now there are more and more people starting to do this.”

Timorese coffee is something of an oddity. ­“It’s probably the oldest coffee in the world,” McCarthy said. “Most people in other coffee-producing countries don’t believe that a coffee tree will live past 20 years, but we’ve got coffee shrubs here that are 70 to 80 years old. You see old farmers and they say, ‘I’m 60 and that tree has been there since I was a kid’.”

As well as being old, Timor-Leste’s coffee is some of the most biologically defiant in the world. In numerous communities there is evidence that ­robusta and arabica plants have hybri­d­i­sed naturally – something many scientists previously believed was impossible, McCarthy said. “You get this plant that has the taste and scent qualities of arabica, but the ­disease resistance of robusta.”

Timor-Leste also has some of the poorest soil in the region and is subject to erratic weather conditions. And yet the nation still produces what is considered a fine gourmet coffee. With a little tender loving care, it could be truly spectacular

This article appears in the June 12 edition of <> Guardian Weekly 

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