East Timor – Fair Trade Coffee

BrothersJo Jouin, former director Sydney’s Toby’s Estate Coffee made a visit to East Timor in late 2004 to look at local conditions. Crema magazine asked Jo to tell us of her experiences.

From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dili airport on the northern side of East Timor we were struck by the warmth and friendliness of the Timorese people.

The children were very accepting of us and we quickly learnt some basic Portuguese language skills – ‘Bon dia‘ for hello and ‘obrigado for thank you. Initially most people were very shy but as we took some polaroid photos and showed the magic of developing the photos, the ice was broken and laughter rang out.

The extent of the poverty really became apparent as we moved up to the mountains. We were invited into the traditional thatched home of one influential and important family from the guerilla movement. There were no possessions. Nothing, just the clothes on their back and a mat to sleep on.

There is very little running water, no electricity and no phones. But in spite of the poverty, all the houses and streets of the villages were very clean. Many times we passed houses with women sweeping the front garden, trying to make the space pretty with old tins filled with geraniums.

At times we were shocked by how dirty the children were, and the instinct to want to bathe them in a big hot bath came over me many times. There are few clothes and many women wear the traditional Tais woven fabrics. Most people
wear thongs, even on the long treks down the mountains, to the markets and back, where they can walk for hours to sell their crops.

In terms of health care, three doctors share themselves around 9 clinics and 25 mobile units around East Timor, although at the time of our visit there was only 1 doctor servicing all 9 clinics. There is a high infant and maternal mortality rate during childbirth. 1 in 10 children don’t make it past 5 years. Children are small and we are often surprised that children who appear to be 4 or 5 years old are in fact 9 or 10. The clinics themselves, however are clean and well-organized.

The town of Maubisse, which we visited, has one of the medical clinics. The Cooperativa Café Timor Medical Clinic – employing 3 nurses and 1 manager – is partly funded by the sale of Fairtrade coffee and partly by the US AID-funded NCBA (the National Cooperatives’ Business Advisory). A doctor tries to visit the clinics weekly, however at the time of our visit, the new doctor from Indonesia hadn’t turned up, and no news for a week as to where he was!

The education system is in disarray as the ‘official’ language, since independence from Indonesia, has reverted to Portuguese. However, most people speak Indonesian, or the local language Tetum. Following the European calendar and after a long break in July and August, children start the school year in September.

Indonesian teachers and managers have left the country leaving unskilled East Timorese to fill the gap. East Timorese teachers are being trained not only to teach, but also to teach in Portuguese, which is not their native tongue. There is talk amongst locals of the Government changing the official language back to Indonesian, or English. However, finishing high school doesn’t hold much promise for the youth of Dili, due to the high rate of unemployment – many times we were approached by teenage boys selling phone cards in the street, as their only source of income.

The coffee industry is the largest source of employment in East Timor. After harvesting, the coffee is brought down from the mountains back to the warmth of Dili for drying and grading. Up to 3000 women are employed in the coffee season to sort and grade the dried beans. Sorting beans earns the women 6 cents per kg, some women can sort five or six 30 kilogram sacks per day. The better the coffee quality, the easier the sorting process. Women are allowed to bring small children to work – the children either play outside or sit under the benches where the women are lined up in cubicles, their bags of beans at their feet.

The men are employed in the processing unit where the parchment is removed from the beans, which creates clouds of dust. The workers are offered masks but generally prefer bandanas or handkerchiefs; many choose not to protect themselves with anything.

Generally, I was surprised by the extent of poverty and the lack of infrastructure in
East Timor. In spite of this, the East Timorese people were incredibly friendly and full of laughter and curiosity.  We believe that by supporting Fairtrade coffee we can make a difference to the lives of these wonderful people.

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