Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

History of neglect gives East Timor’s coffee an edge

08.05.2006 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

ERMERA – Machete in hand, farmer Nando Santosbaros rests as rain patters on the majestic shade trees sheltering his organic coffee cherries in East Timor. Though he hasn’t heard of them, and their jazz-infused stores are a world away, global coffee chain Starbucks is one of his biggest fans as hip caffeine addicts seek out smooth, chemical-free brews. For better sales, he is grateful.

"I am confident that the future is good for coffee," says 69-year-old Santosbaros, staying dry under a wooden shack with a few other farmers amid the soaring hushed hills of Ermera, a few hours’ drive southwest of Dili.

In a good season, Santosbaros says he harvests about seven sacks of cherries — each containing twin coffee beans — weighing close to 500 kilograms (1200 pounds) from his two-hectare (nine-acre) plot. That will earn him around 500 dollars — a salary not to be sniffed at in Asia’s poorest nation.

The other farmers here concur that their lives are easier these days compared to the years of neighbouring Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, when prices fluctuated wildly and the quality of the beans slid downhill.

"Business is much better now, because maybe the quality is improving," suggests muscled Mateos Francisco.

East Timorese coffee, first planted by Portuguese colonisers in the early 19th century and then controlled by Indonesia’s military who largely neglected its improvement, is coming into its own at last.

Cooperative Cafe Timor, to which nearly 20,000 farm families belong, buys up to 40 percent of East Timor’s production — and most of its green beans end up in Starbucks brews, boasts its enterprise development advisor David J.S. Boyce.

"That’s the sort of quality we’re talking about," he says, adding that the fair-trade certified CCT sells to Starbucks simply because they pay the highest price.

Starbucks introduced an origin brand in April last year called Arabian Mocha Timor "that we’re very proud of", Boyce says.

"They used to blend ours with Colombia but the quality of Colombia went down, so that’s rather a good accolade as well," he notes, adding that it’s the East Timorese beans’ acidity and body which lends it an edge.

The added advantage is a history of eschewing chemicals, which today makes it relatively easy for farmers to obtain international organic certification — although it still costs CCT about 35,000 dollars annually for twice-yearly inspections and paperwork associated with every shipment, Boyce estimates.

"There’s a lot of coffee that’s not classified as organic but effectively it is," Boyce says.

CCT is also looking to tap into East Timor’s natural advantage by exporting organic vanilla and cloves as well, with more than 800 vanilla farmers and 142 clove farmers recently being certified as organic as well.

"You’ve got to take advantage of the advantage," Boyce says.

But coffee is the money spinner for now and one of few bright spots for the economy of the world’s youngest nation, which turns four years old later this month. Though it is rich in lucrative oil and gas deposits, the tiny nation is largely undeveloped, both in agriculture and industry.

According to government figures, East Timor’s total exports for 2005 were valued at 8.1 million dollars — of that, coffee comprised 94 percent.

The figure is little changed however from 1974, a year before Indonesia invaded, when 6.9 million dollars worth of coffee was exported, 88 percent of the total, suggesting great potential for improvement.

Boyce says that nothing much has been done with the coffee trees since the Portuguese period — a concern when the normal bearing life of a tree is 30 years.

The Indonesians controlled the coffee industry up until 1993, when the US Agency for International Development stepped in to start CCT.

"Unfortunately (the Indonesians) couldn’t have cared less about quality so the name of East Timor coffee went down in the world’s eyes," Boyce says, adding that they also introduced some bad habits, such as stripping trees for cherries.

And it’s been a long battle, he says, to encourage farmers to boost quality. Pruning trees, for example, would boost production.

"That line of thought and training has been going on at least since the 1990s but they don’t do it — because it’s going to hurt the spirit of the tree," he says of the strong animistic beliefs of many East Timorese.

In effect, he says, most coffee farmers are merely "coffee pickers".

Meanwhile shade trees, whose falling leaves provide nourishment crucial for organic coffee which is not being fertilized, are typically too big now to provide full cover and need replacing.

"We are seeing actually a lot of new land opened up and shade trees being planted with the view of planting coffee underneath a few years down the track. Hopefully then some of the older blocks will be closed and replanted."

Caetano Cristovao, the government’s director of coffee and other state crops, says that changing the attitude of farmers is crucial to boosting production.

He estimates that some 45,000 to 49,000 farms, or more than 200,000 of East Timor’s million-strong population, depend on coffee, "so it’s very important for the country," he says.

"Our plan is number one, to improve the quality … The second is to improve the yield. It could be 700 to 800 kilograms per hectare," he says, adding that educating farmers remains a challenge.

But overall, he’s optimistic.

"The taste, the aroma of East Timor you cannot compare to other countries — even Brazil. Yes, I’m proud. But we have to work hard to maintain, to improve quality so the consumer will always recognise our quality."

In world’s youngest nation, soccer unites

05.05.2006 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

DILI – Eleven-year-old Nuno de Oliveira intently watches a late afternoon football match on a muddy, barely marked field in East Timor’s capital. One day, he hopes to don the red and yellow shirt of his fledgling nation.

"I like to watch them pass the ball around. The way they pass it, it’s cool," says de Oliveira, who started playing when he was six and names England’s David Beckham as his idol.

"Four years after East Timor became the world’s youngest country in the wake of 24 years of Indonesian occupation, soccer is proving a focal point for national pride, its leaders and people say.

"East Timorese people love football from the day they are born. We just need to organise better to play good football. We are just starting out as a nation," says former professional player Almerio Isaac, 37.

The smartly moustachioed Isaac, who says he played for the Indonesian national side for a season during its occupation, gives a pep talk to the players while the sun sets in a glow over Dili’s nearby expanse of beaches.

"I’m not a coach, I’m just trying to be a good role model," he explains.

Emilio Ribeiro da Silva, who wears his national number 10 shirt for the informal skins-and-shirts session, is among those that East Timorese soccer fans are pinning their hopes on.

The 23-year-old player says East Timor needs to devote more money to setting up more competitions so players can get experience.

"We do not have that much funding to set up competitions. We have very few tournaments in East Timor," he complains.

"We need more attention from officials."

East Timor’s national side made its international debut in the 2003 Asian Cup, when it lost 3-2 to Sri Lanka and 3-0 to Chinese Taipei.

In the 2004 Tiger Cup, it lost 5-0 to Malaysia, 8-0 to Thailand, but scored its first goal in a nail-biting match against the Philippines which they narrowly lost 2-1 after taking the lead.

"I felt proud. Although we lost, 2-1 was alright — we didn’t have too much time for preparation," da Silva says. In the next match they scored again, though lost 3-1 to Myanmar.

Amandio de Araujo Sarmento, general secretary of the five-year-old Football Federation of East Timor (FFTL) says that a coach was sent from Portugal — East Timor’s former coloniser — to train the team for six weeks.

"But the language constraint was very difficult. He spoke Portuguese and they couldn’t understand what he said."

East Timor was admitted to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in September last year — a big step forward for soccer in the tiny nation of one million, Sarmento says at his bungalow-office.

"For almost 500 years we were a colony of Portugal and Indonesia and now, after independence, we have this opportunity," he enthuses.

FIFA provides 250,000 dollars a year in assistance but that amount is still not enough to fund desperately needed infrastructure, along with training and travel expenses of the national side and the needs of local teams, he says.

"Every day invitations come from Brazil, Portugal, Asian nations for us to attend events, like under 17s, under 21s, women’s and others. The problem is in terms of finances," he says.

"We need a lot of money to build football in East Timor. As a new country we have to build not only the national but the district level as well," he says. East Timor’s 13 districts do not yet have a league.

Just fixing Dili’s main stadium, with a capacity of some 25,000, would cost about one million dollars, he says.

"Soccer is not only a normal sport — it’s a big business. For them, our kids, our boys, if we can train and develop them … who knows whether they could play in Europe, or somewhere else?"

Aniceto Berielo, secretary general of East Timor’s Referee Association, says soccer is popular because "if you are good at playing soccer, you can have a future".

"Football can help rebuild the country. I hope that some companies can help football develop further, like through sponsorship, and give hope to young players, give them a brighter future," the 29-year-old says.

Foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta says he is not a fan himself but still gets "very worked up when Portugal play".

He says an agreement is about to be signed with the Barcelona Football Foundation which would see coaches sent here in an integrated approach to train young players, though the details are yet to finalised.

Football fan and President Xanana Gusmao says that soccer is "very, very important" for the East Timorese, gesturing to an array of gleaming silver cups nestled on a bureau at his office won by the national under-12 team.

"You know, soccer is something that brings together people. The last world cup in Korea and Japan, it could be called a peace gathering," he says.

"Maybe in the next five years we can have a team to be proud of, a team that raises our flag in other places of the world."

East Timor’s first couple: from rebels to royals

03.05.2006 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

DILI – He was a political prisoner. She was an activist. Together they sought to end the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Now Xanana Gusmao is free and president of the worlds newest nation while Kirsty Sword is his wife and the countrys First Lady. They talk to Jakarta News Editor Samantha Brown about how they made the transition from rebels to East Timor’s equivalent of royals.
When East Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao languished in an Indonesian jail, Australian activist and English teacher Kirsty Sword was a crucial link to his fighters and the outside world.

Sword helped smuggle illicit letters and tapes — along with paints and brushes that allowed the charismatic poet-warrior to pursue an art passion — and through their own correspondence, the pair began an unconventional love affair.

Today, Gusmao is president of the world’s youngest nation, which was freed from the shackles of Indonesian occupation four years ago, and he jokingly complains that his wife gets home from work later than he does.

At his sparsely decorated office in an unlikely beige bungalow in beach-swept Dili, trim-bearded Gusmao shrugs off the significance of his place at the helm of East Timor.

"I feel myself I’m still an ordinary person. The fact of being president is only a duty, a job," he says of his largely ceremonial position, speaking in Portuguese-accented English, the language taught to him by his wife.

His wife, Sword Gusmao, has taken a break from her hectic schedule as founding director of the Alola Foundation, a women’s advocacy organisation, to join him, and similarly plays down her role in the former Portuguese colony.

East Timor has no budget or office for its First Lady — despite Sword Gusmao lobbying hard to get both in 2002 — but she concedes considerable expectations do come with being married to Gusmao from the East Timorese.

"Essentially you’re the mother of the nation — I mean that’s what people have said to me, which is a scary thing when you’re finding it difficult to be a mother to three children, let alone to a whole nation," the 40-year-old says, referring to the Gusmaos’ three young sons.

Despite their modesty, the unassuming couple, who trade playful banter while also ending each other’s sentences, have travelled an arduous road both to be in their marriage and their "ordinary" jobs today in East Timor.

Indonesia’s iron grip on East Timor, today Asia’s poorest nation, began with a United States and Australia-condoned invasion in 1975, which triggered a resistance movement that Gusmao, who turns 60 this year, quickly came to lead.

The independence movement had become active "even before the war" when Dili fell under Lisbon’s rule, Gusmao points out, but the toughest times came when he spent his years in the jungle with his men, "when we were a handful of guerrillas and we tried to tell ourselves that we would win".

Gusmao achieved legendary status among his men and ordinary East Timorese in the ensuing decades when with few resources they battled Indonesia’s military from East Timor’s rugged hills and proved a constant thorn in their side with small-scale attacks, forcing them to be deployed right across the territory.

He was eventually captured by the Indonesian military in 1992 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he painted, wrote poetry and continued to help the resistance through a clandestine network with tentacles in Jakarta.

Melbourne-born Sword Gusmao, who studied Indonesian and Italian at university in her home town — where "like most young Australians" she says she first became politicised — first travelled to East Timor in 1991 as a researcher and interpreter.

Soon afterwards she based herself in Jakarta, where she worked as a teacher and began clandestine work for the East Timorese resistance.

In April 1994, she received her first letter from incarcerated Gusmao — addressed to ‘Ruby Blade’, her pseudonym — that led to an unconventional courtship of smuggled letters and tapes, and eventually brief face-to-face prison encounters.

But in her book, Sword Gusmao describes receiving the first letter where Gusmao told her he loved her.

"I smiled to myself, feeling my cheeks flush red with the blood of pure happiness. Xanana Gusmao in love with ME? Disbelief, relief and a dull ache of longing competed for space in my brain."

They were not freely united until Gusmao was released from house arrest on September 7, 1999, three days after it was announced that more than three-quarters of the East Timorese had voted for independence in a UN-backed referendum sanctioned by Jakarta.

The result unleashed a murderous wave of violence across East Timor by the Indonesian military and the militias they backed. Some 1,400 people were murdered and 70 percent of East Timor’s buildings destroyed before order began to be restored by a UN-led force.

The couple arrived in East Timor in October 1999 to begin their new life among the rubble after whirlwind diplomatic trips to Australia, the United States and Portugal teasing out the details of what independence would mean.

"Together we have faced many new challenges," Gusmao recalls of their homecoming to East Timor.

"Just imagine the destruction, not only the physical destruction but mental trauma, psychological feelings. And she was what actually I needed at that time — my lover, my assistant, my everything," he recalls.

"Everything back in 2000 because we didn’t have anything!" pony-tailed Sword Gusmao interrupts. "It was multi-tasking at every level because there was no infrastructure, no human resources, no money, nothing."

"Nothing," Gusmao echoes. "She with a pair of clothes, and me with another pair of clothes…"

"… moving every month from house to house living out of suitcases," she completes the picture.

After a period of United Nations stewardship, East Timor finally became the world’s newest nation on May 20, 2002. A month earlier, Gusmao had been overwhelmingly elected as president, eschewing the pumpkin farming he had long said he wanted to take up in peace time.

Sword Gusmao says that their lives today now have a greater semblance of normality than back during the transitional phase.

"But to some extent also, not much has changed," she says, referring to the many competing demands on her husband’s time.

"I suppose I’ve come, within myself, to terms with that more and I accept it more and it doesn’t cause me as much anxiety as it did back in 2000."

Asked about what might cause strain in their high-profile relationship these days, Sword Gusmao is pleased to say things are much easier now she is not effectively acting as his unpaid personal assistant.

"There’s not so much that annoys me about him any more because I don’t have to work with him directly!" she exlaims.

Gusmao’s complaint these days is that his wife often works longer hours than he does.

"Sometimes I arrive at home at seven and she…

"And I’m not at home yet!" she finishes, as they both laugh.

But she adds: "I suppose still he’s very unable to say no to people, which is both a good and a bad quality."

In her 2003 autobiography about their relationship and move to East Timor, Sword Gusmao tells of her minor frustration over him falling asleep in front of the television watching late night soccer matches.

"Oh, he still does," she says. "And this is something actually that’s quite annoying, watching the soccer."

For Gusmao — and East Timor as a nation — however, soccer is "very, very important", he says, gesturing to an array of gleaming silver cups nestled on a bureau won by the national under-12 team.

"You know, soccer is something that brings together people. The last world cup in Korea and Japan, it could be called a peace gathering," he says.

East Timor’s team is struggling on the international circuit but, Gusmao says, "maybe in the next five years we can have a team to be proud of, a team that raises our flag in other places of the world."

As Gusmao has transitioned from being a rebel to a statesman, a recurring theme in his work has been — like South African leader Nelson Mandela who visited him while he was in prison — reconciliation and forgiveness.

The stance has earned him some criticism from activists who argue East Timor must see those responsible for the bloodshed during Indonesia’s occupation brought to justice.

A recent independent report found that at least 102,800 Timorese died as a result of the occupation, mostly of hunger and illness that resulted from policies of the Indonesian military.

Forgiveness "is important, because nobody paid us to fight for our ideas," he says. "Because we needed to be independent, we accepted all sacrifices."

He argues that looking backwards will not appropriately honour those who suffered and that justice has already been achieved with independence itself.

"The real big, great justice that we achieved was the international community recognising finally our right to self-determination," he says, adding that a Joint Commission on Truth and Friendship set up with Indonesia should provide catharsis.

"The justice that we wanted to establish is by revealing the truth," he says. Those who committed crimes "must acknowledge that it happened, and of course I believe they must apologise".

Still, progress over the past four years has been "extraordinary" in the half-island nation, he argues.

"People now accept each other. What people demand is to get jobs, to get better conditions of life."

Meanwhile for Sword Gusmao, the shift from being an activist who spoke out on such issues as Indonesia’s independence-minded Papua province to a First Lady could not have been easy.

"It’s a lot of weighing up of the value of speaking out on things as opposed to the damage that it might cause," she explains of her position.

As for the future careers of their three sons, Gusmao is certain he would prefer not to see them become politicians.

"Oh no!" he exclaims when confronted with the suggestion. "Soccer players. Or tennis players. Or businessmen — to get money!"

Sword Gusmao says it will be up to them to follow their hearts’ desire but adds: "I think it may be difficult, having the life that they have and the father that they have, that at least one of them doesn’t go into politics."

Gusmao’s presidency wraps up in May next year, five years after East Timor was born, and he insists he will not run again.

"How can I be a pumpkin farmer if I run again?" he asks.