Growing Coffee in Asia’s poorest nation

Asia’s smallest, youngest and poorest nation is defined by post-independence violence and oil reserves but coffee there represents the great hope. Coffee accounts for 90 percent of the country’s non-oil exports, while 46 percent of East Timorese households rely solely on coffee for their income

The crop has grown in the country for centuries. It accounted for half of the country’s trade when it was a Portuguese colony in the late 1800’s, but during 24 years of Indonesian occupation the bumper business was neglected when the military took over – prices fluctuated and many coffee plantations were battlefields so the quality of beans worsened.

By the war’s end, agricultural experts estimated two generation’s worth of farming knowledge was lost and some plantations looked more like jungles.

But because the trees got little attention the pesticide and fertiliser-free groves are now a goldfield for organic coffee lovers. Today, the coffee is known as the golden prince of East Timor agriculture – worth $10m a year, 46,000 coffee farms employ one-fifth of East Timor’s population but it is a major battle to encourage farmers to improve the quality of East Timor’s agriculture.

They have some of the world’s oldest coffee trees growing in poor volcanic soils under skies that bring very unreliable rainfall. It is so bad, that a hectare of Timorese coffee plantation produces half of what the same plot in nearby Papua New Guinea can produce.

Workers do not like pruning trees which would raise production by 10 percent every year because they are afraid of hurting the tree’s spirit.

Building a farming culture that involves good business generally is desperately needed because experts say the country has some of the worst agricultural yields in Asia.

Many communities in East Timor are plagued by what they call “the hungry season” – four months of famine where last year’s crops run out and the next harvest is not ready.

High child mortality rates because of malnutrition and poverty are among the worst in Asia, also farmers often do not save during bumper years.

The private sector arm of the World Bank ranks East Timor among the most difficult places in the world to do business, but a number of NGO’s are trying to rebuild the tiny nation’s subsistence agriculture base and business practices.

For agriculture, it will take a decade to renew the industry for villages crippled by the burden of hunger and poverty; NGO’s like Empreza Di’ak are improving facilities and livelihoods with different projects in a nation where food is largely imported.

Other groups like Seeds of Life are working to identify high yield varieties of staple crops best suited the country’s climate.

By introducing reliable seeds they hope to improve livelihoods in Timorese agriculture and deliver higher yields, but efforts to improve food security and seed distribution in this largely agrarian society remain contentious.

Some locals meet modern farming methods and industrialisation with suspicion, saying traditional organic methods and crops are better as they are part of their cultural identity.

In an exclusive interview with 101 East, the country’s new President Taur Matan Ruak says its time for the country to abandon organic subsistence agriculture to lift the nation out of poverty.

With picturesque scenery and a strategic trading location East Timor dreams of becoming a financial success like Bali or Singapore, and with limited oil reserves developing a strong agricultural base is needed.

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