History of neglect gives East Timor’s coffee an edge

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."

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