The violent troubles in 2006 drove many staff of Japanese nongovern- mental organizations out of East Timor. The NGOs I visited had modest offices and accommodations, and the staff lived frugally — unlike the “lords of poverty” I have encountered elsewhere in the international development community.
Peace Winds and the Japan-based Pacific Asia Resource Center (PARC) maintain small operations based in Dili, East Timor’s capital, and each has established a coffee cooperative and assists in the distribution of this Fair Trade, organic coffee in Japan.
Why coffee? It is the nation’s leading non-oil export, and by working with farmers it is a way of directly improving living standards in the countryside where most people live. PARC markets some 30 tons of Timorese coffee (less than 5 percent of the total harvest) through Seikyo, a large Japanese cooperative. The major player is Starbucks, which works with a cooperative set up during the Indonesian era.
Junko Ito, the local director of PARC, has lived in East Timor for six years and is married to a Timorese. She says that PARC began offering emergency relief in 1999, after Indonesia’s scorched-earth policy prior to East Timor gaining its independence in 2002 left many people homeless, and it also worked to rehabilitate schools.
The PARC coffee cooperative involves 179 families, up from 34 in 2002 when the project began. The official Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is the source of PARC’s funding, providing 50 million yen over three years. For JICA this is a small program, but it has a high — and positive — profile. Ito acknowledges that PARC and the other Japanese NGOs are small scale and can have only a marginal impact, but she believes that their programs can be models for locals to learn from and emulate.
Farmers are attracted to the cooperative’s higher prices and the chance to get involved in the more lucrative processing of the beans; in working with PARC they are not just harvesters. In addition, the cooperative gives advice on improving the coffee fields, runs literacy programs and also organizes women’s groups to teach them about household management through a poultry-farming initiative. By learning how to manage the finances of the chicken business, women learn how to plan for their family needs — and they also get a steady source of protein from the eggs. Owing to patriarchal anxieties, however, at present only a small number of the cooperative’s families participate.
Ito told me about some PARC’s early mistakes, such as including farmers from bitterly opposing factions. By inviting a number of pro-Indonesian farmers into the cooperative, she says, PARC inadvertently alienated the farmers who had supported independence and they withdrew. In 2003, PARC hit the reset button, expelled the pro-Indonesian families and wooed those that had withdrawn. Due to the efforts of their local coordinator, Francisco da Silva Barbosa, PARC’s coffee venture is now a growing success.
Francisco accompanied me on a tour of the coffee-farming area. He told me that the pro-Indonesian farmers had been ostracized from the community and forced to build their own hamlet, which is visible across the valley. Working together in everyday life is not, he and Ito told me, the path to reconciliation. She said that reconciliation, clearly a great need in this strife-torn island, depends on people taking responsibility for what they did and atoning. There are no shortcuts in traditional communities with long memories, and there is a strong sense of what is right and wrong.
Meanwhile, I learned from a handsome 35-year-old farmer I spoke with that he has 11 children and earns $500 a year from selling his beans to PARC. When I expressed surprise at his large family, he pointed with some envy toward his neighbor who has 17! East Timor has the leading birthrate in the world, a distinction that ensures that most families live on the edge of subsistence. Almost all Timorese are Catholic, and even though various forms of birth control are widely available, they are not, apparently, very popular.
The personable Tom Kanemaru runs Peace Winds in Dili, after serving in emergency relief operations in various areas from Iran to Aceh. Peace Winds has a cooperative that involves 135 households. It is also involved in working with internally displaced people (IDPs) and has a tent-washing operation that employs them. As with PARC, JICA is the major source of funding, to the tune of 15 million yen a year.
Kanemaru believes that “Japanese NGOs are welcome by locals, because they are seen not to have a political agenda.” In his view, there is not much that small NGOs can do to address the crucial problems of justice, human rights and reconciliation. Regarding the elections scheduled for later this year, he bluntly said, “They won’t solve anything.” In fact, he suggested, they will only generate more tensions and anxieties in a nation that has exceeded its quota of both.