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Growing It Alone: Images of Rural Timor-Leste

November 6, 2019

By Nicola Nixon

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.

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Good Governance


  1. Required more advance training on agriculture and another area also as laboratorian training such as production on a quality food chain.

  2. Nicola, Nice crisp round up. I Please allow me to humbly offer that one might also productively mention the continued use of the USD as Timor’s currency as being a major impediment to any meaningful economic opportunities and development, especially for local industry and for rural dwellers and farmers.
    I travelled across west and central Timor in August and September 2019 (reprising work trips there 1999-2003). My discussions with local farmers and officials – some who I’d known 20 years begore- clarified to me the visibly much reduced/parlous state of agricultural enterprise, diminished mechanization and decline of much of farmland over 20 years and slide into subsistence+ activity. The inability to sell produce outside Timor at a vaguely competitive rate because of USD economy , particularly into west Timor/NTT was cited as a key and crippling issue. Coffee sales continue, but the decline in skills is seeing this industry in declune- but coffee is a distraction here. Plenty of Indonesian product flows east by truck over the Batugade land crossing point into Timor . There is next to nothing in terms of ag or rural (or any, save some coffee, but I doubt it? ) produce which goes the other way. It is simply too expensive. Timorese interluctors assured me that there was no market impediment per se selling into west Timor/Indonesia. If something was price competitive it was a goer ( betel nut makes it’s way across informally ). Common language and family/kin networks, and ones left from Indon rule, mean plenty of opportunities if goods are competitively priced. Impossible with USD pegged economy. A bag of US rice can be bought more cheaply than a Timorerse one. Why bother with any investment or skills upgrading ? The USD peg continues to choke off any initiative or local enterprise at basic level. It suits urban elites and certain classes of inwards traders . Local rural agriculture has far less mechanization than it did 15 years ago. Not only is there a lack of skills training facilities and education in ag and machinery maintenance , there are no foreigners or skilled persons working in the regions . The fiction that Tetum is required, unlikely to be spoken before arrival, and lack of ability to communicate with most people on any Iberian dialect (5% your figure) a key problem. Indonesian (and varigated kinds of bahasa Melayu) are still happily used alongside Tetum and ‘tokplas’ (apologies to Pacific crew). Indonesian ubiquitous utility seems to be almost wilfully ignored by the international community. Meanwhile Timorese will happily watch Indonesian TV, and Ministers use to converse in it without a flinch. Many timorese provincial officials I spoke to were deeply unhappy with Dili centric engagement of international developmemt/aid system, and most tellingly for me said without fail that our conversations ( in Indonesian) were the first time they’d been able to speak directly to an international /foreigner about their region/farmers challenges in 15 years since UNAMET and UNTAET. For your consideration.

    I’d be pleased to hear the Asia Foundation across this:)

    Nice to see it’s all in capable hands too.

    Keep up the good work.

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