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  • Sophie Raynor

How one farmer is creating an organic oasis in rural Timor-Leste

The road to Batara village, in the mountains of Manatuto municipality

Welcome to Batara.

Weak morning sun glinted through the misty trees as the new xefi suco, village chief, wrapped a thick tais rug around his shoulders, preparing to greet his morning visitors on our last day in Batara, a village in rural Timor-Leste.

Protected against the morning chill, he waited outside on a plastic porch chair, nodding to us to join him as he saw us climbing the hill. As we sat down, a girl appeared, carefully carrying out to the porch a tray stacked with coffee cups and a large china teapot full of sweetened black coffee made from beans grown in these mountains. Even with a long drive back to Dili ahead there’s always time to take coffee.

“Our identity is in organic farming,” the xefi suco, Thomas Pinto, explained, picking up a story he’d started the night before. Hidden in the mountainous centre of municipality Manatuto, the village Batara is a proudly farming community. For generations farmers have tended tiny, two-hectare plots, and many households grow and roast their own coffee beans. Speaking quickly and earnestly, the xefi suco shared his vision for a village known for its sustainable farming methods. “We had one farmer who was using pesticides and fertiliser, but I spoke to her and that made her throw all of them away,” he said. “Because our coffee is resistant to diseases. We don’t need them.”

Xefi suco Thomas Pinto watching the tais ceremony

Around the circle we silently sipped – cups of the aptly named Hibrido de Timor, a curious hybrid of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans famous across Timor-Leste and completely free from coffee rust – a devastating fungus that restricts fruit production and ultimately kills the coffee plant. The xefi’s vision is bold, but not unrealistic: the soil is good, the coffee is strong, and the community is eager to learn farming techniques that will enable them to support themselves long into the future.

And, crucially, the xefi suco knows how to lead.

Xefi Pinto was elected village chief in the suco, village, elections in October 2016. Previously, he was a member of RAEBIA’s farmers’ group – learning new farming skills in land preparation, seed selection and planting, harvest and post-harvest storage, and water management, to ensure he and other farmers tended their land in sustainable ways that minimise disruption to soil composition and biodiversity. Improving the long-term environmental and economic sustainability of farming, techniques of conservation agriculture like these are vital for villages like Batara as they fight drought, crop loss and hunger.

“We teach two things,” explains Xisto Martins, RAEBIA’s executive director, as the group listens. “We teach technical skills, but we also teach leadership skills. Communication, decision-making, leadership.” He’s well-known in the village: cars are few in this place, and suspicious faces eye off our Hilux crunching through – until they catch Xisto’s face in the back seat and invariably break into grins. Later, we’ll visit the house of the previous xefi suco – a smiling man who lives high in the mountains, in a neat sturdy house fringed with banana palms. “We supported the xefi,” Xisto says, describing the mentoring xefi Pinto received from both RAEBIA and his predecessor as he prepared to take his role.

The coffee is good – and the xefi suco knows it.

A thick crema dissipates as the Maubere coffee cools

It’s sold internationally by the Hong Kong-based Hummingfish Foundation, and we’re in Batara to help its brand celebrate five years of operation. It’s the coffee served at the expat-friendly beachside cafes in Dili – and at seven o’clock in the morning on xefi Pinto’s chilly mountain porch.

Warming your hands around your mug, you understand his enthusiasm, and believe wholeheartedly in his vision for his village.

RAEBIA Timor-Leste supports farming communities like Batara by offering technical and leadership support in implementing conservation agriculture activities - ensuring communities can fight climate change, promote food security, and continue farming forever. Find out more.

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