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East Timor hopes for a Coffee break

Much of East Timor's agricultural base was destroyed during the 1999 militia violence
Much of East Timor's agricultural base was destroyed during the 1999 militia violence  

By Lynn Lee in Dili, East Timor

DILI, East Timor -- As the former Indonesian territory of East Timor gears up for independence on 20 May 2002, some are asking just how this fledgling nation will survive.

Two potential income generators are the oil reserves in the Timor Gap and tourism. But there is a third possible money-spinner -- high-quality coffee.

Guests and dignitaries at the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize award presentation in Oslo got a tiny taste of East Timor when they sat down to dinner on December 10.

When coffee time came the brew served up was made from specially imported Timorese arabica beans.

It's a bit of a coup for an Australian called Alister Laird. He had sent 20 kilograms of the beans to Norway for the organizers to try.

They were impressed enough to put the coffee on the menu.

The initiative is part of his strategy to create recognition for the Timor brand.

"We believe there were people at the conference who didn't know East Timor was a producer of coffee," says Laird, who works for the non-profit U.S. National Cooperatives Business Association, or NCBA.

Yet coffee prices dismal

The association receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop East Timor's coffee industry.

Laird has his work cut out. Much of East Timor was destroyed in the violence that erupted after its vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999.

Farmers, who fled, returned to find their plantations in ruins. Coffee growers have since re-established a planting cycle.

But attempts at rebuilding the industry come at a time when world coffee prices are, in a word, dismal.

A flood of cheap coffee is overwhelming the market -- the result of rising production in Vietnam and a bumper harvest in Brazil.

The past two years have seen prices plummet from record low to record low, with no short-term recovery in sight.

"In 1997, we were getting up to $3 for a kilogram of parchment (un-roasted processed beans)," says Felipe Salsiha, whose family owns a five-hectare coffee plantation in Timor's Ermera district. "These days, we're lucky if we get $0.45."

Small wonder then, that few people celebrated Timor's own bumper coffee crop last season -- only 6,000 of the 10,000 tonnes of available cherries, were harvested.

Falling prices, rising costs

Timorese farmers have had to deal with the double whammy of falling prices and rising costs. Average salaries have quadrupled since the arrival of the United Nations, a major employer in the country.

Farmers say they can no longer afford to hire casual help at harvest time, there is also the question of transport.

Fuel prices, once subsidized by the Indonesians have more than doubled since the referendum.

Those who do want to sell their coffee have to figure out how to cover the $80 or so it costs to rent a car to ferry their produce to Dili.

Despite the obstacles, Laird believes there's a niche for Timorese coffee. The country is blessed with the right soil and altitude to cultivate high-grade arabica.

For the coffee connoisseur these are magic words -- those in the know demand nothing but the best arabica for their espresso.

This is why the bean commands a premium over the more common, more commonly available robusta bean.

The bulk of East Timor's arabica also falls neatly into another special niche -- it's organically cultivated.

This means no fertilizers and no pesticides, which ultimately brings better prices.

Question of quality

But a good cherry (the term given for the cofffe fruit) does not necessarily a good coffee make.

There's still the processing and the roasting to worry about -- and Laird says that's where Timorese farmers come up short.

"It is worrying that farmers don't adhere to any standards when processing their cherries," says Laird. "Most farmers don't bother separating the good cherries from the bad. The result is poor quality parchment."

The questionable quality is a legacy of the past.

Until NCBA and USAID persuaded Indonesia to give up its monopoly over East Timor's coffee trade in 1994, growers were only allowed to sell to a single company controlled by the Indonesian military.

Prices were kept artificially low, with little incentive to increase productivity or boost standards, the full potential of Timor coffee was never realized.

A premium espresso

At Cooperativa Café Timor (CCT), the project run by NCBA and USAID, cherries are bought directly off farmers and processed in Dili.

Strict quality control has enabled Laird to negotiate premiums of up to $0.10 a kilo for the bags of coffee that finally leave his factory.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and World Bank have embarked on a campaign to educate farmers.

In Ermera, growers can visit demonstration centers to learn processing techniques and obtain tips on disease prevention.

An initiative is also underway to help all of East Timor's 45,000 coffee farmers gain organic certifications.

Behind the moves are hopes coffee will boost Timor's shattered economy.

It is, after all, the country's only significant export.

But a valuable one, if believers, like Laird, have their way. Timorese arabica is good enough for the Nobel organizers.

CCT has even convinced gourmet coffee chain Starbucks it's good enough for their customers.

Now if only Timorese farmers can be convinced it's worthwhile sitting out the coffee slump.




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