Subject: Timor-Leste: On the road to future prosperity
Timor-Leste: On the road to future prosperity
Wednesday November 18th 2009
Matt Crook reports on a government project that’s tackling two of Timor-Leste’s biggest problems: bad roads and high unemployment
School was out in Ermera, a district in the western part of Timor-Leste, but for 17-year-old Natalia de Jesus de Nascimento, there was no time to waste as she got to work on fixing the 7km or so of road linking her village, Lehu, with the outside world.
“It was my own choice to come here. I wanted to contribute to the development of the village,” she said on a sweltering day. All around, young men and women were armed with hoes, shovels, pickaxes and crowbars.
“It is hard work, but I don’t feel too tired doing this. Sometimes, after I finish work here, I need to do other jobs at home like going to the farm or washing dishes,” said de Nascimento, who has four siblings and attends the local junior high school.
De Nascimento and her 20 or so fellow workers are part of a government project that’s tackling two of Timor-Leste’s biggest problems: bad roads and high unemployment.
The aim of the project, which began last year, is to generate more than a million days of employment, targeted at young people, by getting rural communities to mend and establish routine maintenance on almost 2,000km of roads in the country that was created in 2002 after the Indonesian occupation of what was then East Timor ended .
About three-quarters of Timor -Leste’s population of 1.1 million live in rural areas, most of them reliant on subsistence agriculture. The lack of infrastructure means that only a quarter of crops grown are sold, and farmers have to walk for many hours to reach markets.
The project identified the roads most in need of repair based on criteria such as the number of people living along the routes, while the feasibility of doing the work depended on building materials being within easy reach.
“This road is important so that people can go to the local market and get to the river to collect sand and other building materials,” said community contractor Simian Luis Pereira, 23, who manages the workers on this project.
About 40% of East Timorese live below the poverty line, so the $2 a day the workers earn for fixing the roads keeps them just above that line and makes for a welcome injection of cash into their communities. Lehu village is home to about 1,000 people, most of whom farm taro, pumpkins, bananas, cassava, corn and coffee.
“Some of the workers are still high-school students,” said Pereira, who as a skilled worker earns $5 a day. “With this project, it can help them save cash to use for their education.”
Pereira’s workers, aged between 15 and 29, work from 8am until about 1pm every day. The high demand for this kind of labour means that the group has to be rotated every 30 days.
A short drive away from Ermera, 150 men and women of all ages were in the final stages of rebuilding 11km of road in Bazartete, part of Liquiçá district.
There are 600 households spread over three villages along the road. The work, which began in April, has seen the road transformed from a rocky, pot-holed nightmare into a weatherproof wonder.
Victor da Silva, chief of Maometo village, says the improved road is a blessing. “Transport is much easier now, which helps people to trade their agricultural products in the local markets,” he said. “The people here also transport building materials to renovate their houses.”
All along the newly smoothed stretch of road, there are houses in various stages of being done up.
“Ambulances can now get to people in need, while trucks and microlets [small minibuses used for public transport] are now able to get through, whereas they couldn’t before.”
With so few paying jobs in rural areas, projects like this are highly valued.
Fernanda Alves Correira, who has been digging and spreading gravel for 20 days with the latest rotation of workers, can’t remember how old she is, but she knows she has 11 children to support and send to school.
“Yes, this is hard work, but I can still do it,” said Correira, whose husband has a disability and can’t work.
“I want to do this job because all my children need to go to school. What would make it easier would be if I could have work that is not just temporary.”
Laurindo dos Santos, chief of Natuto sub-village, says the road project is a boon for the community, but it’s one that’s over too soon. “Some of the people here want to continue doing this kind of work, so now a few of them are upset that the project will come to an end,” he said.
Getting rural communities to fix their own roads benefits thousands of people, but it’s not a long-term solution to unemployment in Timor-Leste.
Village chief da Silva added, “Now the workers have to try and manage their time, so in the mornings they come here to do this and then afterwards they carry on with agricultural activities.”
The UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), which trains the community contractors before individual roadworks begin, provides technical support for the project. Across the country, the government is implementing labour-based rural infrastructure programmes assisted by ILO and with funding from Australia, Norway, Ireland and the EU.
For the road project, they get around the short-term nature of the employment by also providing life-skills training in areas such as numeracy and literacy.
Tomas Stenstrom, the ILO’s labour-based-technology expert, said, “This programme combines infrastructure work with employment generation. Where we can replace machines, we use manual labour.”
For mother-of-11 Correira, who also has pigs, chickens and goats to take care of, the additional income has been worth the sweat and toil on the road. “This is a normal life in East Timor,” she said, before getting back to dislodging large stones with her crowbar.