Timor-Leste: Creating Fair, Direct Trade in a Complex Land

I was told that I was the first buyer ever to sleep in a coffee farmer's house, the first to hold meetings with farmers and ask their opinions. That's not hard to believe in a country so remote from our geography and most of our consciousness (do you know where Timor-Leste is?). The newest country on the planet only gained full independence in 2002, after centuries of Portuguese colonization, Japanese occupation and Indonesian military repression. Timor-Leste is struggling hard to forge its own path and create an economic base that can raise the living standards of some of Asia's poorest people. Coffee underpins the entire economy.

We have been buying coffee from Cooperative Cafe Timor (CCT) for eight years, but it is the only country we buy from that I had never visited. Nor did I know anybody who ever had. I had met with the Foreign Minister, UN Ambassador and Vice Prime Minister at various times in New York to discuss our approach to People-Centered Development and how that might be relevant to the coffee regions in Timor-Leste. For years we had been providing profit-sharing funds to the farmers for the purchase of medicine in the rural clinics constructed by CCT, and for the last two years supporting a small alternative food project called Gardeners of Eden. I had heard grumbling from some folks in the industry that the farmers weren't getting much money nor had much say in their cooperatives, contrary to the rules of Fair Trade. I didn't want to support something I didn't understand, or make representations about the lives of the farmers we bought from that weren't accurate. Since I was unaware of anyone in the coffee industry with first hand, on-the-ground knowledge of the situation, I had to check things out for myself.

My two weeks in Timor-Leste were the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, the wettest of wets and the hottest of hots. Each day brought new information, confusing and conflicting stories, canceled meetings, hope and heartbreak. On the surface, CCT is not structured like other Fair Trade cooperatives. The producer sub-coops do not appear as active as in other countries; some farmers say they don.t get as much information, technical or medical help from CCT as they want. Some said the money was just enough to get by, but not enough to improve their living standards. I was pressed by some folks I met- how can you support this when you know it isn.t really Fair Trade, regardless of approval of the international certification body FLO? Can you continue to buy in good faith and make representations that this is really fair to the farmers?

I openly brought my concerns and what I had heard to the CCT staff, made up of American and other foreign consultants and managers as well as several hundred Timorese. We had long discussions about the state of social organization in rural Timor-Leste, a country with a long fractious history of colonization and only recently post- traumatic (the many burned out buildings and shattered windshields testimony to the rawness of the experience). I observed that it may be difficult to organize classic cooperatives under those circumstances, but the goal of Fair Trade is more than just raising income, it is also to increase community involvement in decision making, and to empower farming communities to take greater control of their destinies. Yet CCT had raised the price of raw beans (cherries) and forced other buyers to raise their prices, benefitting farmers throughout the country. The farmers are provided with good technical information and training to improve their crops and increase yields - pretty important where farms are miniscule and most farmers only earn -600 per year for their labors. The clinics are often the only medical facilities anywhere nearby, and the midwives I met were dedicated and competent. No CAT scans or sophisticated equipment, but good diagnostics and basic health care, especially for expecting mothers (Timor-Leste has the highest infant mortality rate in Asia). CCT is an efficient, fair business set up to improve farmers. income and to introduce fair trade cooperatives to the country. The farmers certainly participate in CCT. They elect representatives who vote in the annual assembly. They receive information about pricing and delivery of the cherries at harvest time, and they participate in trainings concerning quality and yield, and reforestation. What appears in need of strengthening is direct farmer participation by a wider number of representatives, both male and female, in local decision making. Are there a broader range of community development choices besides the health clinics? Can communities choose to use their fair trade premiums for water purification and well building, school building or supplies? These choices are usually the province of the farmers, and communities can only improve when they are vested with the power to make these decisions themselves.

I offered an experiment to CCT. Let's take one village, one small geographic area. We can identify the coffee from that area and that will be the coffee we buy. We will create a direct relationship with that community and work together to improve cooperative relations, bring greater technical and financial resources to the community and see what happens. Contrary to what some folks in Dili said to expect, the CCT people readily agreed. We settled on the village of Atsabe, an isolated community at about 1600 meters (great coffee altitude!) that produced oversized, high quality coffee that was blended in with all the other coffees in the area (when anybody buys Timor coffee, it is a blend of all coffees in Maubesse or Ermera districts; we are the first in history to create an origin in Timor-Leste!). We set out two days later for the six-hour drive to Atsabe, accompanied by Bency, the incredibly competent CCT agribusiness project advisor, and Sisto, the CCT General Manager, whose family is from Atsabe.

The road to Atsabe winds through heavy coffee forests, shaded by towering albesia, casuarina and leucayna trees. The roads vary from decent, one-lane hardtop to axle-deep mud pits. They are too narrow for two vehicles to pass, especially if the other is a truck with thirty folks hanging out the back or a massive United Nations SUV careening down the road as if they owned it instead of being there to protect the people. We passed stunning waterfalls and massive vistas stretching all the way to the Indonesian side of the island (West Timor). We drove through small settlements of woven walled huts with conical grass roofs intermingled with crumbling or burned out colonial Portuguese villas, until we rolled into the medical clinic at Atsabe. Some folks in the capital doubted that I would ever actually meet a farmer. But when we pulled up to the clinic we were greeted by a crowd of about sixty people. After being covered by Bendita Gonsalves in the ceremonial tais (hand-woven traditional material) she had made, I was able to address the crowd. I asked how many were coffee farmers. Almost all of the hands went up. I asked them all to gather in a circle so that we could talk and get to know each other. What followed was an open and frank conversation and questioning back and forth about coffee, pricing, CCT, the community.s goals, and how we might work together in the future. The good people of Atsabe, led by Angelino da Silva, their elected CCT representative, unanimously endorsed creating a direct relationship with Dean's Beans. We sealed the deal by my buying one hundred new pruning saws for the community as a show of good faith and to help them get started in improving the crop for the coming July harvest. A good lunch followed, washed down by some of Atsabe's finest coffee (I tanked up with three cups!). We walked through a nearby coffee forest and talked about pruning techniques, increasing yield, identifying the special qualities of Atsabe coffee and how the greater coffee world operates. Angelino, slapped one of our "Make Coffee Not War" bumper stickers on the clinic wall, to the applause of the gathered farmers.

Upon my return to the capitol, Dili, I had the opportunity to kick back with President Jose Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in liberating Timor-Leste. We had a far-ranging discussion of paths and pitfalls of different development approaches, bringing disenfranchised youth into positive social activity, Timorese music and, of course, coffee. Resident Ramos-Horta confided in me that a certain bean from Timor-Leste (which happens to grow in Atsabe!) is known to have a Viagra-like impact on men who drink it. He gave me some to take home, warning me that he didn't know whether my wife would thank him or yell at him (he gave me permission to print this conversation). Report on the coffee's impact to follow! The President also promised to wear his "Make Coffee Not War" tee-shirt on his morning runs along Dili's beautiful beaches.

I am fond of saying that social justice is a process, not a formula. After thirty years of activism on behalf of indigenous peoples in many countries, I know that western structures may seem value neutral, but may not necessarily be culturally appropriate in different communities (more about this in my next book "The Heart of Development"). So I felt the need to put my Timor coffeelands experience in context. Timor-Leste is still raw with the aftershocks of colonization and brutal occupation. There are many internal divisions that only time and effort will heal. The CCT program in Timor-Leste does not look exactly like the coops in Latin America or Africa, yet it has brought stability and international recognition to the Timorese coffee sector through efficient organization, quality control, Fair Trade and organics. If buyers of this great coffee are willing to stand up with CCT and help out, bringing more resources and attention to Timor-Leste, the rural farm families will see greater financial returns and greatly strengthened communities. That is our hope for Timor-Leste. That is our commitment to Angelino, Sisto, Bendita and all of our new partners there.

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