Just a little over two months ago, Timor-Leste celebrated the 20th anniversary of the referendum that brought the country its independence. The Asia Foundation’s governance director, Nicola Nixon, sends these reflections from a visit to a project site in the historic town of Maubisse, 70km from the capital.
View to the hills outside Maubisse, Timor-Leste Maubisse's soaring hills, cool climate, and wide-open spaces create tourism development opportunities that have included suggestions for a flower park, lookout points, a tourism information center, and a golf course. The big question is how these developments will provide Timorese with sustainable and equitable economic opportunities at the local level.
Rice farms outside Aileu, 43km from Dili, Timor-Leste Some 80 percent of the population of Timor-Leste relies on agriculture for their basic livelihoods. Yet, production can’t keep up with booming population growth, meaning undernourishment rates are some of the highest in the region; roughly half of children under five suffer from stunting.
A painting of José Ramos-Horta hangs in a café in Aileu Key figures of the Timorese resistance loom large in popular culture, illustrating the prominent role that narratives of resistance play in the country’s national identity and political life. A Nobel laureate, José Ramos-Horta was spokesperson-in-exile for Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, during Indonesian occupation, from 1975 to 1999, and later served as president and minister of foreign affairs.
A Protuguese colonial homestead in the hills above Maubisse, 70km from Dili Timor-Leste was colonized by Portugal in the mid-sixteenth century, and that southern European nation, which ruled here until 1975, still exists in contemporary Timorese consciousness. In 2002, the country chose Portuguese as one of two official languages, along with Tetum, though just 5 percent of the population speaks it, and Portuguese officials can still be found providing advice and support in some government ministries.
Our guide’s aunt, in a small village outside Maubisse, working in her vegetable patch Although heavily involved in the agricultural sector in rural communities, female farmers in Timor-Leste don’t benefit from market institutions, technology, or programs nearly as much as men. Men accumulate more wealth and own most of the agricultural land.
The Catholic cross The Catholic church is important in Timorese politics and society, playing a significant role in communities by providing services and resolving disputes. Ninety-six percent of Timorese identify as Roman Catholic, and as a key actor in the country’s resistance and independence, the church is held in high regard. But collaborating with the church to further the country’s development can mean navigating a complex, highly centralized, hierarchical structure.
The characteristic conical roof of an uma lulik, or holy house, in the hills overlooking the town of Maubisse Uma luliks tend to serve a number of purposes. They incorporate an altar for ancestor worship and provide space for the community’s elderly to rest or to store grain. In Timor-Leste’s nascent tourism industry, uma luliks have become stylized guesthouses, providing accommodation for travelers.
Putting on a brave face A simple but brightly painted house outside Maubisse.
Rows of young strawberries at a strawberry farm As the world’s fifth-newest nation explores strategies to boost development and foreign exchange, a bright spot is Timor-Leste’s enormous potential for organic produce and agrotourism.
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