Timor Leste: No Joy in the Brilliance of Sunshine

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.” — Joseph Conrad

mountains of timor

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Timor Leste to work with a local organization, called Seeds of Life, that is assisting the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries on food security. Seeds of Life focuses on seeds. Go figure. I am working to integrate nutrition into their portfolio of work. By working with the local team, we are trying to improve the nutrition within the varieties selected and introducing nutrition education and knowledge to cooperatives of farmers working in the formal and informal seeds systems in the country.

Some of you may be wondering where Timor Leste is. Some think it is in Africa, others know somewhere in deep Asia. Others, near PNG. Here is a map just so you don’t have to go and look it up:

Timor Leste map

Timor Leste map

Timor Leste is a country steeped in a history of conflict, takeovers, colonialists, destruction and pillage. This may seem overly dramatic but the theater has had its day out here on this small island and now, after a decade of peace, Timor is beginning to mark its own path on what will likely be a long road towards development.

The Portuguese came in 1515 mainly for sandalwood but also made slaves of men and their families. They stayed for a while, about 400 years. They then decided to leave, thanks to the Timorese resistance and independence movement in 1972. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded, and decimated most of the capacity, infrastructure and hope of this small nation. By 2002, only ten years ago, Timor Leste became it own nation.

UN Peacekeeping forces moved in, and now, by the end of 2012, they are leaving. Leaving Timor Leste on its own. What has resulted in all this takeover and “babysitting” over the last 5 centuries? One result is the highest prevalence of chronic undernutrition, as measured by stunting, in the world. On an island of roughly 1 million people, and of that 250,000 children under five, 58% of them are stunted or chronically undernourished in bodies and brains. In some districts of Timor Leste, the number is as high as 75%.

university of north dakota

Why is this. The Timorese eat a lot of starch – potatoes, cassava, rice. Always rice. Rice. Is. God. Most of the rice they consume comes from Vietnam. But they do eat beans, leafy greens, and fruits. They don’t eat much meat, and are low consumers of fish, although they are surrounded by water. Most are subsistence farmers working on marginal lands with poor soils. Sanitation and hygiene is a huge issue (worms aka snakes in the stomach) and health care services are sparse. Capacity to deliver interventions remains a huge issue. Knowledge on childcare practices another issue. Access a massive issue.

Timor is very mountainous – and the roads suck. The north to the south of the island is only 120 kilometers but it takes 5 hours by car to make the trek. There are cultural taboos and rituals that can be detrimental or positive towards improving nutrition.  Cockfighting is a huge business, often at the expense, and this is just a hypothesis, of spending money instead on necessary childcare.


Timor is a beautiful place no doubt. The island is surrounded by tropical waters (with the occasional saltwater crocodile lying on the beaches) and overall, beachfronts are undeveloped. But it has major development hurdles to get through. Timorese are very poor, and access to services, technology, and basic goods are quite low. The country sits on massive amounts of oil in the Timorese Sea. It will be interesting to see how they spend the funds on their citizens beyond just pensions for veterans who fought in the resistance.

But with all the potential opportunity and newfound freedom, I felt some sadness, or a lack of joy in Timor Leste. I can’t exactly describe it. The Timorese could not be warmer, more friendly, and wanting to try, but there seemed to be apprehension. I don’t blame them. I posted some photos of the Timorese here.

It seems some others (an isolated bunch) don’t have faith in their development either. I talked to a few Balinese here in Indonesia and they don’t seem to interested in TL. I met one man in Bali selling West Timor crafts and when I asked him if any of the statues came from Timor Leste he said: “the only thing in East Timor is alcohol and fighting.” Okay…thanks for your opinion buddy. Not sure that is an attitude moving in the right direction…

We know that the Timorese have seen sadness mixed with triumph, but as we approach 2013, we will most likely see a Timor Leste on its own, independent, and beginning to prosper. A country where the cycle of stunting is broken and children grow, learn and become prosperous citizens. The time is now and most of us are pulling for Timor Leste. They deserve the chance.

This entry was posted in agriculture, development, diversity, stunting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Timor Leste: No Joy in the Brilliance of Sunshine

  1. Valentine is a farmer and raises cattle in the quiet warm agriculture area outside of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He has 30 cows and a few fields where he plants corn, yucca, and peanuts. Valentine lives in a house on the hillside with his wife and young son who loves to sing (he is about 6 years old and sang a few songs while strumming his guitar). I asked Vincent why he took out loans, “if I didn’t have a loan I couldn’t buy more seeds. If I do buy more seeds then I can plant and harvest more fields.” It’s that simple. Valentine’s dream is to buy more cows for his farm and more seeds to plant – both of which allow him to supply the local cooperative market.

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