Adrift of Australia and at the feet of Asia, one of the world's newest nations is trying to make its way.

Adrift of Australia and at the feet of Asia, one of the world's newest nations is trying to make its way.

Timor-Leste was given up by Portugal in 1975. It was promptly invaded by Indonesia, which carried out Operation Clean Sweep, a series of massacres, summary executions and "disappearances".

Up to 200,000 lives were lost in conflict over a quarter of a century.

The United Nations, including New Zealand personnel, kept a tenuous peace until the end of 2012.

Now Timor-Leste is trying to make its own way in the world. But neither the Pacific nor the Asian community of nations seems willing to welcome it.

The country no-one wants

Laura Walters: words

Abigail Dougherty: visuals

Cristo Rei in Letefoho, Ermera, Timor-Leste Cristo Rei in Letefoho, Ermera, Timor-Leste

Clouds of red earth billow as we wind along the unpaved roads of Timor-Leste’s Ermera district.

Locals walking to school, work and market cover their faces; turning from the dust. The children turn and face the 4WD with smiles, waves, and “bom dia” - good morning.

Shacks and modest houses line the pothole-ridden roads. Next to the houses lay tarpaulins with piles of coffee beans drying in the sun. The bigger the pile, the more substantial the house. More land means more beans, and more money from the harvest.

We pull up in a sub-village of the Hatugau village. A pile of beans lies drying next to a bamboo house. A woman leans against the doorless frame, looking out.

The beans don’t belong to Lorentina Soares - she doesn’t own any land. She harvests coffee for other villagers, making an average of US$3 a day ($4.60). It’s back-breaking work, and she believes it’s the reason for her multiple miscarriages. Soares, who’s now a grandmother, says she’s 54, but her face tells the story of someone who’s lived much longer.

Lorentina Soares, her daughter-in-law Virginia Meko and children

Lorentina Soares, her daughter-in-law Virginia Meko and children

Lorentina Soares, her daughter-in-law Virginia Meko and children

Timor-Leste is wedged between Australia and Indonesia; between the Pacific and Asia.

The Portuguese colonised the country, also known as East Timor, occupying it for more than 400 years. In 1974, the Portuguese colonies furthest from Lisbon were set adrift. Fretilin, a pro-independence force, took over in 1975, but nine days later, Indonesia invaded.

Indonesia occupied Timor-Leste until the country officially gained independence in 2002. But prior to the independence ballot in 1999, the Indonesian military conducted Operation Clean Sweep, a three-week campaign causing mass displacement, destroying 70 per cent of the country’s infrastructure, and about 95 per cent of the capital’s infrastructure. During that time, about 280,000 people - more than the population of Wellington city - were displaced or forcibly removed.

At the time, the world was watching its newest nation. Since then, it’s largely faded from view. But it still desperately needs help.

New Zealand has supported Timor-Leste since 1999 - first through peacekeeping troops, and now through aid. In 2018, New Zealand will invest $16.7 million in aid and development - 6 per cent of the total aid budget.

NZ aid spending
Bi-lateral aid for Timor-Leste, including scholarships
Financial year

Attention is now fixed on the Asia-Pacific region due to increased trade, population growth, and geopolitical rivalries, spurred on by China’s rise and contentious claims to the South China Sea.

This puts Timor-Leste in a strategically significant position. The country’s new Government, which took control in July, wants to join a series of member groups. It’s aiming to join ASEAN, the Pacific Islands Forum, and now the Commonwealth. So far, it’s a member of none.

Technically, the country of 1.2 million people falls into the South East Asian region. But New Zealand's Ambassador to Timor-Leste Vicki Poole says it shares many similarities with the Pacific, including language and culture, size, and development challenges.

“But their future is South East Asia; it's becoming members of ASEAN... It's going to be where the economic growth is, it's where the future opportunities will be.”

Before Timor-Leste can look to the future, it needs to rebuild. The scars of conflict cover the country.

Top 10 donors
Donations made in the last year ($US)

The average life expectancy is 69; the adult literacy rate is 58.3 per cent (compared to New Zealand’s 99 per cent), and more than half the population is stunted due to malnutrition. The poverty rate has improved but remained high at 41.8 per cent in 2014.

Soares sits in a plastic picnic chair, on the dirt floor of her house. She cradles her sleeping grandson, while her daughter-in-law Virginia Meko feeds her four-month-old baby, Augusta.

Meko squeezes her breast to get out any milk she can. As soon as she finishes feeding, Augusta puts her fingers in her mouth and starts sucking.

The family eats what they can grow on their small plot of allocated land: cassava, taro, sweet potato and banana. If they have some money, they buy rice. If they don’t, they take out loans.

Soares doesn’t own the small shack, with the rusting iron roof. And they don’t have any savings, just debt. Their story is repeated in various forms by almost everyone we meet in Ermera district.

When she’s asked what she wants for her children, and her grandchildren, Soares pauses and half-smiles: “That they're not like us.”


Timor-Leste isn’t a poor country, thanks to offshore petroleum. But oil production is declining.

The country’s gross national income is a little under $3 billion, but that money is largely spent on Government infrastructure projects, and rarely touches the country’s 70 per cent rural population. This has led to a strong push for economic diversification.

Poole says the lack of access to economic opportunity is a real challenge. Timor-Leste is currently ranked 178 out of 190 countries for ease of doing business.

“The growth is in Dili, the money - a lot of it - is in Dili.”

New Zealand now invests $5m (31 per cent) in economic diversification. But a recent evaluation of the Timor-Leste programme says investments are dissipated.

“New Zealand needs to tighten its logic and its focus in this sector.”

NZ aid spending breakdown
2017-18 NZ Overseas Development Assistance (includes multi-lateral and volunteer service abroad funding

As part of the refocus, New Zealand has been helping communities in mountainous regions farm fish in ponds to give them another source of income, and much-needed protein. It’s also helping farmers with agricultural practices, and introducing high-value crops like cocoa. The first cocoa samples were recently shipped to New Zealand for testing.

Other projects include helping Timor-Leste build a regulatory framework for its emerging tourism market. And helping about 15,000 arabica coffee farmers improve the quality and quantity of their yield.

Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster would be at home on a Wellington street. The small shop, set back from a seaside Dili street, has natural wood furnishings, and artisan cakes on the counter.

It’s been open four years, and serves the very beans you’d find in Starbucks.

Lucilia da Carmo says she gets up to 60 customers a day. Her clientele are Australian, Singaporean, Portuguese and some Kiwis. The Portuguese order single-shot espressos. They serve flat whites for the Kiwis and Aussies.

The coffee is exported mainly to Japan, Hong Kong, the United States, Australia, Singapore, and now the Netherlands. In 2016, New Zealand imported US$198,000 of goods from Timor-Leste, 92 per cent of which was coffee.

Coffee is the country’s largest industry, after oil and remittances. This year, Ermera farmers are getting about US$2 a kilogram for the green Japanese Peace Winds beans, and US35 cents for the American variety. Most coffee growers who own land earn between US$500 ($750) and US$1000 ($1500)a year.

For a quarter of the population, coffee is the main source of income. But farmers like Soares only have money for three months of the year, during the harvest, and are poor for the other nine months.

Da Carmo’s barista colleague Mario Amaral says over the years the quality has slipped, dragging prices down. Poor roads, difficult terrain, water, and a lack of understanding of things like pruning have all affected the industry.

Coffee exports dropped from US$23m ($35m) in 2016 to US$14m ($21m) in 2017, due largely to a drier-than-usual season. The World Bank says coffee exports are trending up in the long-term, but there is seasonal volatility.

Meanwhile, a 2016 Asian Development Bank report says declining productivity has reduced incomes and quality has not kept pace with global demand.

The cost of producing coffee in Timor-Leste and exporting it to foreign markets is high. However, most coffee is produced at qualities that are too low to be sold at prices necessary to make a sustainable profit.

The report recommends creating a private sector-led industry association to help advance the country’s coffee interests.

“It’s difficult to solve a jigsaw puzzle without seeing the finished image. Presently, Timor-Leste’s coffee interests are like individual puzzle pieces working independently of each other trying to find a place. While each pursues his or her own best interest within a limited scope of view, nothing comes into focus. There is no big picture that all are working together to achieve.”

About a dozen kids between three and five sit in the open-air community centre; barefoot, and crossed-leg on a tarpaulin.

“Hello!” says the facilitator. “Hi!” chorus the kids.

Only 22 per cent of the country’s children attend pre-school. Preschools are clustered in urban centres, with some municipalities having as little as 10 per cent enrollment. As a result, most children enter grade one without going to preschool, making them prone to repeating grades, and eventually dropping out.

The UNICEF community preschool runs a few hours a day, three days a week. It’s a cheaper alternative to the Government’s state preschools. They’re also supported under the New Zealand Government’s $6.85m knowledge, skills and training development grant.

UNICEF Timor-Leste representative Valerie Taton says they try and put the schools in areas of greatest need.

“We try to have the best, most efficient investment.”

That means getting the children together, with a trained facilitator, rather than prioritising a fancy building.

The organisation is hoping to get Government support for the community preschools, because when government’s don’t invest in early childhood education, they spend up to 30 per cent more on health, and primary and secondary education.

Three days of the week, sub-village chief  Ernest de Deus walks around the village, poking his head in doorways, and stopping at coffee plantations to gather up wayward tots. He walks hand-in-hand with them to the preschool.

The 45-year-old went to school for a couple of years as a child, but when the war came his only option was to walk an hour to school in Letefoho village.

Then in 1999, like many Timores, he was forced to flee to the mountains. When he returned the village, including his house, was burnt to the ground. Like many villagers, he cut bamboo to erect makeshift shelters until help arrived.

De Deus and his wife Madelena lost two of their six children. One of them died of malnutrition in 1999, soon after de Deus returned from the mountains. When he speaks of his four children, and their schooling, he smiles. One is studying in Dili.

De Deus says he didn’t make any specific promises during his election campaign, but he did say he would work hard to make community life better.

Zelia da Costa is 10 years old, but has had the equivalent of just two years of schooling. Like many children growing up in tough conditions, she’s wise beyond her years. Three days a week she delivers her younger brother to preschool, because she knows the importance of education.

When things are tight, education isn’t a priority. Zelia stays home from school to look after her younger siblings while her parents work.

A quarter of children repeat grade one, and on average, it takes children 12 years to complete six grades.

When we relay Zelia’s story to Taton back at UNICEF headquarters, her brow furrows: “This is a lost childhood.”

“I think no child should be lost. So it’s not just about the next generation, we have to find out ways for those who are children now.”


Walking along a track in another small Hatugau sub-village we bump into Anarosa Soares de Jesus. Anarosa is 12, and she’s got a five litre plastic jerry can in each hand.

During the dry season, she collects water twice a day for her family. Water is scarce at this time of the year; later in the dry season it’s worse.

As well as collecting water from the stream for their families, children in this hunda eldeia also collect water for their school.

The junior school hasn’t had water for four years. A small amount of water runs to the tank at the senior school, but doesn’t make it to the taps or toilets before leaking into the ground.

When the Government built the school it installed toilet blocks and a tank. But there wasn’t enough pressure, and the small pipes have fallen victim to tree roots. Now the tank sits empty, and the squat toilets are smeared with faeces from the past week.

Joao Adison Tapel is one of the children who walks an hour and a half in each direction to help collect water. The 13-year-old boy says they desperately need water. He and his classmates are often thirsty.

School coordinator Antonio Soares de Deus is frustrated by the lack of water.

“When the kids want to drink water, we cannot provide water to the kids, and as a father figure it makes me sad.”

UNICEF is currently working with the sub-village, and community mobilizer Eteivino Menezes to fix the water problem once and for all.

Menezes says they’ve found a bore 10 minutes walk from the school. They’ll put in a new tank, and a new piping system, and the school should have water by October. Hopefully this is the last new water system the school will ever need.

Taton says it’s important to include the whole community in the process.

“We know that if there is a shortage of water, the tendency of the community will be to stop the water in the school so that it can irrigate. But we also understand the need of the communities to grow their plants and get food. So it’s difficult to say that this is a priority, this is not a priority. All are priorities.”

The new system will serve the school, and its 525 children, as well as the two closest sub-villages, with a total population of 894.

Sub-village chief Marcos Afonso Soares wears a bright orange t-shirt touting the benefits of childhood vaccinations. He lists the problems hampering his village: no water at school, no electricity in the village, poor roads, and a lack of round-the-clock medical care.

Too often pregnant women are strapped to the back of a motorbike and driven over rough terrain to the nearest clinic when there are complications. Even then, 22 per cent of children die in the first 28 days, and 50 per cent by the age of five.

“Our complete dream is that we want to have good conditions of roads, and clean water, and electricity so our kids can study at home in the night. After they come home from school, they can rest, then after having dinner they can start to study at home,” Soares says.

Earlier this year, Timor-Leste’s country classification status came up for review. It currently sits with the bottom group of least developed countries. On an income basis, it’s been eligible to graduate to a middle-income country since 2015.

But high rates of malnutrition, illiteracy, child mortality, and poor school enrolment figures mean the UN committee did not recommend moving Timor-Leste from the bottom bracket. It will now have to wait until 2021 to be considered again.

For now Timor-Leste still needs the world’s help.

Poole says if Timor-Leste can harness its natural resources, and strategic position, it could be poised for huge economic growth thanks to the massive youth population.

Young people cover Dili’s streets. They’re playing football at the beach, running up the steps of the city’s massive Cristo Rei statue, zooming around on scooters, or loitering about.

Almost 70 per cent of Timorese are under 30; many have not had access to education, and they’re under-employed. For every 20,000 young people, there are just 2000 jobs. A large, underemployed youth population can lead to discontent.

“Those risks that are absolutely still there, around a tipping point where youth are bored and could start getting up to mischief, there’s no doubt that’s on the cards, and Government needs to be aware of that - parents need to be aware of that. But so far, in fact, it hasn’t been the big problem that it might,” Poole says.

If Timor-Leste can harness its post-conflict baby boom - as the western world did after WWII - the population will be an economic opportunity.

“If you educate your young people, if you invest in their health, then they become an economic asset. And right now is the time for the Government to invest in education and health, to make sure those young people; that this youth bulge becomes an asset and an opportunity, and not a risk and a big problem.”

Meanwhile, Taton talks about Timor-Leste as a country full of possibilities. It’s a country that’s achieved an enormous amount in 16 years, and with a little help, will soon be ready to take charge of its future.

But so often something seems to stands in its way.

When we speak to locals about the frustration of taking one step forward and two steps back, they refer to “the Heineken experience”.

In 2015, Indonesian beer brand Bintang - owned by Heineken - built a factory in Timor-Leste. Locals knew profits would go offshore, but supported the opportunity for the creation of 1000 jobs. When it came to the interviewing process, locals lacked the skills to fill the positions. This story was replicated when the country set up its oil refineries.

Before Timor-Leste can make the most of its position, and its resources, it needs to get the basics right. That means increasing human capital, a better business environment, better infrastructure, better spread of wealth, and improved social services like healthcare.

“This is a small country, which also makes things possible,” Taton says.

“I’m not saying that it’s not a complex country - it is complex, despite being small - but it’s feasible, it’s achievable.”

Her plea to the world is to “invest in success”.

“We should invest in success and not wait until the situation gets worse... We should invest in hope. That’s how I see Timor.”

  • WORDS: Laura Walters
  • VISUALS: Abigail Dougherty
  • GRAPHS AND LAYOUT: John Harford
  • EDITOR: John Hartevelt
  • UNICEF New Zealand paid for flights to Timor Leste for reporter Laura Walters and visual journalist Abigail Dougherty.