Franciscan Father Yohanes Kristoforus leads West Timor villagers in restoring fertility to barren land
Father Yohanes Kristoforus Tara and schoolchildren prepare to plant trees on in Laktutus, Belu district. (Photo supplied)
Arriving in West Timor in 2013, Franciscan Father Yohanes Kristoforus Tara found barren land and a scarcity of water.
He was even more concerned when he found out that many Catholics had left West Timor to work overseas or in oil palm plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Father Kristo, as he is famously called, is now parish priest at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Laktutus, near the border with Timor-Leste.
The parish has 3,000 parishioners; of those, about 300 have gone to work abroad, mostly in Malaysia.
"I was wondering why people prefer to work on other people's lands rather than on their own land," he told ucanews.com.
He soon discovered that people seek greener pastures in other regions or overseas for economic reasons. Most of the western part of Timor Island is arid; its rainfall remains low during the year.
The priest then made conservation and economic empowerment priorities. He began holding discussions with community leaders and the government, as well as delivering his messages in sermons.
The initial step was taken in 2014 by requiring families to plant trees in front of their homes and provide special land in the garden to plant sources of wood.
"Forests are shrinking because they cut down trees to build houses," he said. "I oblige them to plant trees so that in the future they will have wood stocks for their children's homes."
He mobilized efforts to grow trees that would produce timber such as mahogany, trembesi and sengon. The government provided some of the seedlings, while some came from the communities.
The effort was expanded to planting trees near water sources where water discharge has decreased.
In addition, to develop the community's economy, he encouraged them to plant coffee trees, a potential commodity for the area.
In all, under Father Kristo's supervision, more than 10,000 trees and 15,000 coffee trees have been cultivated, with the goal both to conserve nature and improve the economy for the people.
Father Kristo said he started this initiative by planting coffee and trees on a 6-hectare plot of land owned by a parish.
While some followed his example, many showed no interest when he kicked off the forestation program.
The challenge is how to change the mindset of people who generally think that work must directly bring in money, which means they prefer to work as farm laborers or go abroad.
According to the priest, the people have been in a slumber for a long time; hence awareness of the need to preserve the environment remained very low.
He also blamed the government for relying too much on money to run its programs, and criticized some reforestation efforts as merely ceremonial.
"There has been a reforestation program, but it has not been followed up with supervision," he said. "There is no evaluation either."
Father Kristo said he is constantly approaching the villagers. "I told them, if you don't plant trees today, your children will not have wood to build homes. If you don't take care of springs, your grandchildren will not get water."
Father Kristo's constant care for the environment has earned him the Kalpataru Award, an honor given to environmental heroes, from the Belu district government.
Yoanita Mesak, the head of the environment unit at the district, told ucanews.com that Father Kristo has set an example for government officials and the people. "His commitment inspires us how to love the environment," she said.
Father Kristo with his Kalpataru award certificate he received from the local Belu district government on Nov. 27 for his commitment in forestation program efforts. (photo supplied)
Faith and moral commitment
Father Kristo's concern for the environment began when he was appointed the advocacy manager of the Franciscan's Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Jakarta.
In 2009, he initiated the youth forum for justice and peace, a group of students who stood against destructive mining — especially on small islands such as East Nusa Tenggara.
He also organized demonstrations and initiated meetings with police, government officials and established networks with NGOs on various environmental issues.
When he moved to West Timor, he opposed the presence of manganese company PT Soe Makmur Resources in South Central Timor district, and with the local people he occupied the company's mining site.
The company has the license to exploit 4,555 hectares covering six villages in two subdistricts, which threatens the local people's source of life and has dried up several springs.
East Nusa Tenggara governor Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat, who constantly backs Father Kristo's struggle, signed a regulation in November that supports the imposition of a moratorium on all mining permits in the province.
"I will also guard it so that it is really implemented," he said.
Father Kristo said that he always seeks out an economic development pattern that that does not damage the environment.
The priest's efforts over the years have started to bear fruit.
Isto Sury, 46, one of the village leaders in Laktutus, said the coffee planted on Father Kristo's instructions has provided good produce.
"He has opened our minds," Sury said. "This gives us hope not to look for opportunities in other places but on our own land."
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