East Timor is one of the newest nations on earth, a small country sharing an island with Indonesia in the south eastern corner of the archipelago. The Portuguese colonized in the 1600’s primarily for exports of sandalwood and were the first to bring coffee to the island. After the Portuguese left in the 1970’s, Indonesia invaded and claimed it as their 27th province, leading to decades of violence and oppression. Finally, after mounting international pressure, Indonesia relinquished control and East Timor became a sovereign nation in 2002.
In the decade and a half that has followed as this new nation finds its footing, Timor remains one of the poorest countries. An estimated third of the population relies on coffee for their means of income. Far too often, they earn a relative pittance for the fruits of their labor and the cycle of poverty continues.
Last year we gained knowledge of a Japanese non-profit, Peace Winds, working the coffee sector of the Letefoho highlands, developing quality and delivering prices well exceeding the local fair trade cooperative’s rate. After cupping type samples from last harvest and realizing the tremendous potential for quality in the area, we booked our flights and hit the road.
Our trip began in Sumatra and continued through Java (both areas we’ve frequented regularly over the years), but the prize of this trip was to be our first visit to Timor. Flying into the capital of Dili, the mountainous landscape emerges from the coast, with rivers carving valleys to the ocean. Our first afternoon in Dili was spent cupping, visiting the office and warehouse, and meeting the local staff, including our gracious and knowledgeable host, Ryou.
Early the next morning we set off for the highlands, a steep winding climb through breathtaking scenery. Our two nights in Letefoho were inspiring on many levels. The people here are among the friendliest, resourceful, and joyous we’ve ever met. The terrain is gorgeous and varied, with swaths of grassland, steep rocky slopes, pockets of forests and coffee, and beautiful rolling mountains as far as the eye can see. The climate is hot and dry during the day, with cool clear nights providing a deep clear glimpse into our vast universe.
As for the coffee, it seems to like it here just fine as well. The old growth typica and hybrido de Timor (locally called arabe and moka respectively) seem well suited to conditions reminiscent of Western Ethiopia. Shade is proved by casarina and lantoro trees, and many of the farms are intercropped with taro, cassava, squash, and chilies. We visited six farmer’s groups during our visit and what witnessed proved clear evidence that this is indeed a community we want to work with. Farming groups vary in size from 11 to 30 households each. During the harvest season, the entire group works together to pick and sort cherries, making what might seem a daunting task far more enjoyable and manageable as a team.
Evening of the harvest, fruit is pulped using locally made hand crank pulpers (the heavy disc is carved from gum wood). Freshly pulped parchment is sorted and placed in sacks to ferment for two nights, before being washed and then dried on tarps in the sun for an average of five days. The dried parchment is delivered to the Peace Winds warehouse in Hu-apu (Letefoho Villa) with samples sent to Dili for evaluation and cupping. The coffee remains in the cool dry conditions of the highlands until ready to be shipped.
We have our first shipment from this community due to arrive later this month!