East Timor's Coffee Industry Hurting
Bernardo Babo feared a bumper coffee harvest at his mountain farm might be in peril when tumult in East Timor's capital drove hundreds of residents to flee, seeking refuge.
Babo's fears were justified. He and other farmers from Railaco, 37 kilometers (23 miles) west of the Dili, failed to transport their coffee harvest to the violence-wracked capital for weeks. Many stayed off their farms, and tons of coffee beans fell to the ground and rotted.
Months-long unrest in East Timor has eased, but it dealt a heavy blow to the fledgling country's already-fragile economy, including its coffee industry - a major source of foreign exchange, jobs and pride.
"For us, coffee is like gold," Babo said.
Initial estimates show about 20 percent of this year's coffee harvest target of 10,000-15,000 tons may have been lost, said Fernando Amaral, a senior official at the coffee and industrial crops unit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
East Timor supplies high-quality organic beans to companies like Seattle-based Starbucks, and provides a livelihood to about a third of the tiny country's nearly 1 million people, many of them extremely poor farmers, agricultural officials say.
East Timor's latest violence - the worst since it broke from Indonesia in 1999 - was triggered by the dismissal in March of 600 soldiers from the 1,400-member army.
Battles between rival armed forces factions then gave way to gang warfare, arson and looting, forcing tens of thousands of people to abandon Dili or take refuge in camps scattered across the seaside capital.
The coffee harvest usually starts in early May and peaks around June and July.
"We were really badly affected," Babo said.
Farmers like Babo depend on seasonal coffee earnings support their families and send their children to school the rest of the year, said Rev. Samuel Dizon, a Roman Catholic priest in Railaco.
"It's the only thing that supports them. They have nothing else," Dizon said.
He said many coffee farmers depend partly on rice and vegetables grown in their backyards for food.
Dili's coffee-processing factories suspended work at the height of the violence. At least one was attacked by looters in late May, Dizon said.
"The farmers were afraid to bring their beans to Dili, and there was no work in the factories," Amaral said.
Some farmers panicked and hastily sold their coffee beans at drastically low prices in rural markets as violence began to engulf Dili.
Meanwhile, the prices of basics like cooking oil jumped, Dizon said.
East Timor is a tiny player in the international coffee market, contributing less than 1 percent of world output, said Caetano Cristovao, director of coffee at the agriculture ministry.
But its special status as a certified grower of organic, mild arabica coffee has gained the international coffee industry's attention.
East Timor has been able to market its coffee as 100 percent organic, largely due to the absence of modern pesticides and fertilizers, and to the islanders' still-simple method of growing coffee on rarely pruned, long-neglected trees.
The biggest markets are the United States and Europe, which buy more than half of East Timor's coffee. The rest is shipped to Australia, China, Indonesia and Japan.
Coffee is a bright spot in the 4-year-old Southeast Asian nation that has lately been known largely for its domestic troubles.
"There are some things that still have to be improved in the local industry, but we're proud of our coffee," Amaral said.