Lessons on life from the people of Timor Leste

by Tyson Rory O’Shea CERES Global intern

Our CERES Global trip to Timor Leste in July 2019 was an intense and immersive two weeks, packed with opportunities to learn about a country still recovering from a series of tragic and chaotic upheavals over the past 50 years, and to exchange knowledge with a community-oriented people who have their eyes on the future.

The trip’s focus was on the use of Permaculture in Timor to address the country’s troubles securing food year-round, but the building of lasting relationships and cultural understanding took the foreground. Many of us built personal relationships with the spirited and friendly local people that we met while staying in their communities, and found that we were able to learn a lot, and leave valuable knowledge with those who needed it. We hoped to facilitate a mutual exchange of knowledge between locals and Australians, and this worked very well, with members of our party passing along their expertise to local NGO NaTerra.

We found, however, that the local farmers and villagers had vast practical knowledge when it came to sustainable agriculture in Timor’s situation, hammering home the importance of listening to and learning from the locals, and of considering the most effective and helpful approach to building a relationships with communities.

I arrived in Dili early in the morning after a long transit and after quickly settling into our accommodation, I met with my fellow travelers and began to discover Timor’s fast-paced capital city. I noticed immediately that the city bears deep scars from the Indonesian military’s destructive departure in 1999, but I also saw signs of the communal solidarity which bonded Timor during and after their struggle for self-determination.

A large, bold statue of a soldier nursing a dying comrade in his arms sticks out on the city’s main road, suggesting the painful spectre of past violence which hangs heavy in the minds of the Timorese, especially in Dili, which was at the centre of the conflict. However, a short walk would take you from this monument past multiple local co-ops aimed at enriching Timor’s future, a testament to the collective effort that the young country has made to begin a new chapter in its history.

One such business is Letefoho Specialty Roasters, a coffee shop selling high-quality Timorese coffee from Letefoho in the Ermera region. Under Portuguese occupation many farmers were made to maintain cash-crops like coffee, producing raw beans for which they would receive little compensation. Selling value-added, treated coffee is a far more lucrative business, and this is what Letefoho Specialty Roasters is doing with the help of some initial funding from a Japanese NGO. They are also giving farmers in the Ermera region the means to treat and package their own coffee, using the crops left as a legacy of Portuguese colonisation to fashion an income in the newly independent Timor. This is representative of a duality that pervades Timor. While the Timorese are acutely aware of the suffering wrought throughout their history by dominating foreign powers, their eyes are turned intrepidly forward into a new era of solidarity and development.

Many Timorese appear to see their future in the communal values that have always been a part of their culture, and there is an ongoing discourse in the country about how this can be respected in the development path that is taken.

Attending a conference in Dili centred around Timor’s sustainable development, I learned of the dissonance between the traditional, communal mindset of many rural Timorese and the projects of some NGOs in providing assistance in development. Many international NGOs, said one speaker at the conference, aren’t familiar with Timorese culture, and want communities to run like a business, optimally designed for profit from a single product. During our stay with NaTerra in the village of Atecru, this point was echoed by our energetic host Leo, who spoke lovingly about Timor’s fundamentally communitarian culture, lamenting that there were those who would deny this culture to maximise profit. As he sees it, the Timorese people had lived autonomously and sustainably for millennia, and need only to remember and respect the traditional ways of life that lasted for so long before their subjugation from outside. The distinction is between a Timor focussed on maximising growth and profit to develop, or one which attempts to preserve its own culture and social structure while developing sustainably. Now that Timor has a constitution and a democratic government of their own, they should be looking to reclaim their heritage and produce food locally for their communities to solve their hunger problems, rather than accept the globalised economic development model and attempt to access the international marketplace. This, Leo says, would be to risk letting go of the things that are so important to the Timorese: their land, families, communities and culture. Traditional, community-based farming techniques are still alive in the minds of the older generation and in rural areas, but in the cities the younger generations have begun to forget these techniques.

Many NGOs are present in Timor, both well-funded international ones and local ones struggling to scrape together funding. While many struggle for funds, these local NGOs appear to have a very different view to the international NGOs of what manner of development is in Timor’s best interests. At the conference I was continually struck by the impression that the local NGOs had vastly more contextual knowledge than the internationals (none of whom were present at the conference) did, and also a genuine trusting relationship with the local people that they aimed to support.

While many foreign NGOs advocate chemical soil inputs to boost crop yield in the short-term, local NGOs like NaTerra and Permatil attempt to give farmers the resources to grow organically and build healthy soil, making for continued prosperity into the future.

Timor’s mission to enrich their population and ensure that everyone is able to feed themselves runs into problems which are characteristic of many small states and underdeveloped economies emerging into a globalised world. While they want to develop a sustainable economy and retain their culture in the long-term, they also must consider their difficulties securing food in the short-term. While it is most beneficial to the country’s economy that products consumed in Timor are also produced in Timor, foreign countries can import products at a much lower cost than local producers can compete with. Furthermore, when it comes to food, these cheap imported goods are not nutritious or conducive to healthy human development. Contact with highly-optimised Chinese markets has led to an inundation of cheap, nutritionally barren foods such as instant noodles, which, coupled with a lack of education around nutrition, contributes to severe malnourishment in Timor. In 2013, half of Timor’s children under age 5 were physically and cognitively stunted as a result of malnutrition. There appears to be a profound tension between Timor’s immediate needs for subsistence and its long-term goal of self-sustained autonomy.


It is easy to let a culture and set of traditions slip away through mounting concessions to short-term strategies. Many small states have seen the customs embedded in traditional social relations gradually replaced by an arrangement optimised for growth, one which is fundamentally opposed to sustainable and community-based life. Timor has been unlucky in many ways, but by my reckoning, one of their most valuable assets is a sense of unity and a shared mission which binds them together as a country, inspiring them to work toward a sustainable and peaceful future without sacrificing the things which form their identity.

To find out how you can visit Timor Leste with CERES Global see here.

By | 2019-10-08T11:07:00+00:00 September 25th, 2019|CERES Global, Timor Leste|0 Comments

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