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Timor Leste

Toiling for beans in Timor-Leste

Without land reform and government subsidies, coffee farmers will continue to struggle

Toiling for beans in Timor-Leste

Domingas da Costa (left) and brother Antonio Maya Ximenes at her house in Mirtuto (Photo by Siktus Harson)

Domingas da Costa has spent her entire life working as a coffee farmer on her family’s land in Mirtuto, a village in the coffee rich district of Ermera, 30 kilometers from Timor-Leste’s capital Dili.

This year she turned 46; her dreams of earning more money, owning a better home and buying a portion of land where she can grow her own coffee, not just manage her family’s land, have long faded away.

“Having my own coffee farm is not possible at this time. Besides, it’s a patriarchal society, we are aware that most of the land where we grow coffee is owned by other people,” da Costa told ucanews.com in an interview at her a small semi-permanent house, which is half-concrete and half made of wood.

Most people in Ermera, the country’s largest coffee district, perhaps unsurprisingly earn their livelihood from coffee. But since the country’s independence in 2002 after twenty-five years of Indonesian occupation, coffee — the country’s primary non-oil and gas export — has not proved successful enough to lift thousands of farmers from poverty.

“Since income from coffee is not sufficient, many farmers have to find other sources of income to survive,” said da Costa who also runs a small store selling basic necessities to her neighbors.

Her brother Antonio Maya Ximenes, 52, a co-manager of the land, said Timor-Leste farmers, in particular coffee farmers, face numerous obstacles including poor road infrastructure, insecure land tenure, and a lack of financial support from the government to improve coffee output.

“We cannot transport our coffee directly to buyers in Dili. Hence, we fall prey to local middlemen. We have no choice but to sell our coffee to them at a low price,” he said. Ximenes’ farm produces about 300 kilograms of dried beans per year.

The middlemen, meanwhile, have their own challenges, which drives prices down.

Julio Martins Pereira, one of middlemen in Ermera district, insisted he always ran a fair business in dealing with farmers but said complaints were common. “This is business. We want profit, of course. But there are many obstacles such as poor quality coffee and the cost of transporting coffee to our buyer in Dili,” he said.

Need for land reform

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Zulmiro da Silva Medeira, advocacy official at the Kdadalak Sulimutuk Institute (KSI), a local NGO that empowers farmers, said of all the challenges to economic success, land ownership remains the biggest and most intractable.

The country has had patchy land titling over the decades and began issuing titles only in 2011. Progress on that and adjoining land laws have been slow and land disputes continue to plague the country.

“This is a serious problem because there are more than 54,000 coffee farmers nationwide,” said Medeira.

The disputes and lack of security have proved a significant impediment to improving coffee farms. Farmers are less motivated to rejuvenate old coffee trees or plant new ones, because they are afraid that once everything is done, they will see their land grabbed.

“Amid such uncertainty, they only rely on what nature can produce,” said Medeira.

Farmers walk barefoot through a coffee plantation (Photo supplied by KSI)


Most coffee trees in Ermera are decades old and grow naturally on mountainous terrains, without professional care. This lack of standardization allows for a fraction of the yield of most coffee-producing countries.

KSI, in cooperation with other NGOs and parliament, drafted a land law years ago. But in May 2011 then-president José Ramos-Horta vetoed the bill and asked legislators to rework it carefully and thoroughly to prevent future conflicts. It has yet to be passed.

Most of the land in Timor-Leste, not only coffee farms, was claimed by different groups during Portuguese and Indonesian occupations, and then again after the country gained independence. Through the bill, KSI suggested that the government should take over all the land claimed by companies or groups of people and let farmers manage it under state surveillance.

In 2013, the new government under the leadership of then-prime minister Xanana Gusmão met with NGOs, who once again pushed for the government to nationalize all land claimed during Portuguese and Indonesian occupations.

Medeira said the central government is moving too slowly on the land issue, which is counterproductive to its own plans to prioritize agriculture development. “You can’t talk of agriculture if land remains a problem,” said Medeira, who is also a lecturer at Fulidaidai Institute of Economy in Ermera district.

In its strategic development for the next 20 years (2011-2030), the government has outlined a plan to develop the agriculture sector, including providing subsidies for coffee farmers.

During the opening speech of the 14th conference of ministers of justice of Portuguese speaking countries in Dili on June 22, Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo admitted that Timor-Leste as a new nation is facing issues such as land ownership and agrarian reform. The government, he insisted, is committed to continuing the process of regularizing land ownership and promoting private ownership titles.

“The Sixth Government considers it essential to speed up legislation seeking to regularize land ownership, which we call the Land and Properties Law,” Araujo said.

Empowerment through training

According to Lomelino Salsinha, coffee rehabilitation manager of Coperativa Café Timor (CCT) — the biggest coffee buyer in Timor-Leste — land ownership is a crucial issue, but it takes time to solve and requires political will on the government’s part.

In the meantime, it is imperative that poverty is lessened by helping farmers improve their coffee yield and the quality of the beans produced. CCT, with more than 400 staff, works closely with coffee farmers across the country.

The group often encounters farmers who are eager to cut down old coffee trees and plant new seedlings, but they are worried of losing their only source of income, because new coffee trees take two to four years to bear fruit. Farmers who do not have other sources of income will be impoverished if no subsidy is provided during this transition period.

The government, in its development plan, has stated that it would subsidize farmers. According to Salsinha, the subsidy should be directed towards helping farmers during such transitions.

Every year CCT buys 10,000-20,000 tons of berries and exports them to American coffee giant Starbucks. It also provides training to teach 15,000 member farmers to follow global standards of coffee processing as outlined by the National Coffee Business Association. The end goal is a better, consistent product. 

“Training is crucial for farmers so that whatever amount of coffee they have, they can improve its quality and follow global practice in the coffee industry,” he said.

Lucio Jose Albino, project manager of Alter Trade Timor (ATT), the local partner of Japanese buyer Alter Trade Japan, concurred and said that training and empowerment of coffee farmers is the best way to help them elevate their lives.

Though ATT buys a small amount of coffee from farmers and exports about 40 tons every year to Japan, Albino said the group has helped to successfully transform the financial situation of hundreds of families in Ermera district.

A farmer in Ermera district dries coffee beans in front of his house (Photo supplied by KSI)


Careful planning

Timor-Leste’s main export is oil and gas, while coffee and other products make up a much smaller percentage.

According to Charles Scheiner of local NGO La’o Hamutuk, Timor-Leste coffee exports vary greatly, ranging between 10-33 tons a year, with an average value between US$10-20 million every year. In 2014, the value stood at $13 million.

Coffee exports could exceed present value if the government focuses on it. However, as more than 80 percent of GDP comes from oil and gas exports, the government is more keen to focus on expanding other products for domestic consumption, to minimize dependency on imported goods.

“You can find in supermarkets in Dili, even small things, such as orange or mango juice, are imported from other countries,” Scheiner said, noting that in fact these could be produced locally.

Mariano Ferreira, also a researcher at La’o Hamutuk, said the government’s focus is unclear.

“Our government is spoiled by oil and gas. But they are not renewable resources. Once they are exploited, that’s the end,” Ferreira said. On the other hand, agriculture products such as coffee, rice, or corn can be developed and continue to produce depending on how they are managed.

According to a La’o Hamutuk report released earlier this year, Timor-Leste’s oil and gas will run out in the near feature. Last year, Joint Petroleum Development Area (JDPA) produced 136,000 barrels per day, down from 179,000 barrels/ day in 2013 and 202,000 barrels/day in 2012.

It also said that the petroleum fund which is now about $16 billion, and the main source of the country’s annual budget, will be depleted in the next few years if the government does not improve its spending. This year’s budget totaled $1.57 billion, with $276 million or 18 percent of the budget for government spending, and only $37 million (2.3 percent) for agriculture.

“We at La’o Hamutuk are concerned about the petroleum fund. Because if it’s deducted continuously without being balanced with any contribution from productive sectors, it will soon run out,” said Ferreira.

The group urged the government to pay serious attention to productive areas such as agriculture (coffee, rice, corn), tourism and maritime sectors, with the hope that these industries will cover half of the state budget in order to save the petroleum fund from sinking fast.

“Coffee has the most potential and needs serious attention from the government, because its market is clear. What’s needed is to find ways to improve outcomes in the long run,” said Ferreira.

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