Sawlani: East Timor's coffee industry was established under Portuguese rule several hundred years ago and thrived as a result of cheap labour and high demand. However, when Indonesia invaded the country and took control of the lucrative industry, processing standards and exports slumped. Kerry Laughton is an expert on East Timor's coffee industry. She says that negligence on the part of Indonesian authorities led to a shortfall in supply
Laughton: During the Indonesian regime, a military company took over the coffee industry through a business interest in a company called PT Denok. And during the Indonesian era, the coffee industry was neglected. So there was no maintenance basically, so now it grows wild. And the typical age of a coffee tree to yield is about 25 years. Much of Timor's coffee now is fifty to eighty years old. And so its highly diseased, its not very high yielding.
Sawlani: She says that the poverty experienced by coffee growers is another problem.
Laughton: They don't have enough income to buy the tools that they need to improve their farming techniques When I was there, I was interviewing a lot of farmers and they said that their problem was that they were locked into the coffee industry. They didn't neccessarily want to replant, you know, they were perhaps a bit more interersted in doing subsistence farming and feeding their families. They didn't have the income to actually change the crop.
Sawlani: But these are not the only factors. Dr David Lloyd, a senior lecturer Southern Cross University says that the lack of shady trees in coffee growing regions are threatening the growth of coffee trees.
Lloyd: What we're seeing now is the death of a lot of these shade trees. They've got a fungus and they're starting to die off. And as they die off, that's going to pose a big threat to coffee production because the more shade trees, the better the quality of the beans.
Sawlani: Despite the shortfalls in the industry, coffee remains East Timor's main cash crop and currently accounts for 18 per cent of country's total economy. According Dr. Lloyd, coffee also generates ninety to hundred per cent of income in some of East Timor's rural districts as an export crop.
Lloyd: It particularly became important after Indonesia left because prior to that point, thirty per cent of the population were employed by the public service. Once the Indonesians left, it created a vacuum in employment so coffee is probably the only income for many areas of rural East Timor.
Sawlani: In an effort to breath life back into the industry, nine members of the East Timor Coffee Academy have come to Australia to learn suitable cultivation methods in order to create a sustainable coffee industry. Dr. David Lloyd has been spending time with them.
Lloyd: They've got a chance to go out to a coffee plantation and see how they can pay an Australian salary of a thousand dollars a week compared to a salary of four hundred dollars a year in Timor and be quite profitable and its through mechanisation. We've been looking at de-husking processes because at the moment in East Timor, all the berries are transported by truck right up into the hills to a processing plant. And that menas they're taking 90 trucks a day. With a few five-hundred dollar de-husking machines, we could reduce that to one truck every two days.
Sawlani: Dr. Lloyd will also put forward recommondations to enable the successful growth of coffee crops.
Lloyd: So the first thing to do is that we will be having some of our postgraduate students and other staff going back over. And we've indentified areas where we'll be setting up trial plots. And we can actaully test what will work in East Timor. The other one is pruning. There's been very little pruning of coffee plants in the last twenty to thirty years. After the Portuguese left, the skills left with them and so we were able to demostrate that a twenty per cent pruning of the trees can almost double production.
Sawlani: If these and other recommendations are not implemented, Dr. Lloyd warns that the coffee industry may suffer further.
Lloyd: The problem is without pruning and without effective management, they're going to lose the quality which is their edge in the market and go the way of other places which have started to produce lowere quality coffee. Which means they can only sell it for instant coffee and they can't get the premium prices.