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Rural development

Timor-Leste: A road gives life to a community

Coffee farmer Pedro Soares de Fatima used to carry a huge coffee sack on his back to get to the nearest market. It was a ten-hour return journey, until an ILO project built high quality rural roads in Timor-Leste.

Feature | Bangkok, Thailand | 01 October 2015
Pedro Soares de Fatima holding ripe coffee beans
© M. Kearney / ILO
RAILACO LETEN, Timor-Leste (ILO News) – Pedro Soares de Fatima, a grizzled coffee farmer, tells a tale of exhaustion when describing how he and his friends would take their coffee to market, in the time before the rehabilitation of their village’s road.

“It was such a long, long way away, and we had only our own bodies to take the coffee down to Railaco,” he says, pointing to his wiry torso.

“We would leave at 4am and not arrive until 9 or 10am in the morning." Whole families, he says, would carry huge coffee sacks on their backs and make the ten-hour return journey to Railaco. If the coffee didn’t sell in Railaco, they would walk all day to Gleno, more than 30 km away.

For their efforts, Ermera’s farmers received just 20 to 25 US cents per kilogramme for their coffee, making them amongst the poorest of Timor-Leste’s subsistence farmers.

But a refurbished, 14 km road, connecting Railaco Leten to the main Railaco-Ermera road has changed all that.

Coffee buyers can now bring large trucks in and buy ripe beans directly from the farmers in their village; the price has jumped to 40 cents per kilogramme.

We feel this road has given life to our community.”

Pedro Antonio Soares, a coffee farmer and an overseer for the community labourers
“We feel this road has given life to our community,” said Pedro Antonio Soares, who, as well as being a coffee farmer, is an overseer for the community labourers. “Now they just turn up and we sell right here.”

In 2012 the farmers earned between US$2–$4 a week, selling at the hard-to-reach Railaco Leten market. The rebuilt road, which provides an alternative and faster connection to neighbouring Aileu, has changed all that and the market is now hugely popular. Inter-district trade has now boosted weekly sales, to up to $25 a week. In a country where nearly half the population lives on less than US$1.25 per day, that is a significant increase.

The road was built with funding from the European Union under an ILO rural roads programme, Enhancing Rural Access (ERA). Altogether ERA has built 140 km of high-quality rural roads in six rural districts of Timor-Leste, replacing pot-holed and land-slide prone dirt tracks that were very difficult to use.

A road to employment

The better road has also brought another benefit: employment. Pedro Antonio was surprised to discover that the construction company planned to use unskilled community labour, essentially allowing coffee farmers to build and maintain the road in the off-season.

“For the last 100 years no-one has involved the community, until the ERA Project came,” he says.

“This is a great opportunity for our community, so we’re really happy,” he says.

Since 2011 the programme has provided work for 8,000 people from rural communities. It has also trained more than 400 company directors in how to develop well-priced contract bids, make financial plans, and employ and train community labour.

Female labourers working alongside men
And in another first, the project included women – with female labourers working alongside men, doing nearly all the same physical tasks.

“At first I was surprised because it involved building a whole road. But I was confident I could do it, as I do a lot of heavy duties at home,” said 23 year-old Antonetee de Jesus Soares, a farmer.

The long standing chief of Railaco Leten, Lorenco Fatima de Jesus, has been an ardent supporter of women’s rights, supporting his female village chief, and supporting women’s rights to make community decisions. But he doubted their ability to do hard physical labour. But the ERA road building project changed his mind.

Women work harder

“Firstly women work harder, they don’t smoke, and they work and not gossip,” he says with a smile, as he watches a young woman shovel dirt from a drainage canal.

The community foreman, Pedro Antonio Soares, agrees that the women’s hard-working attitude is infectious.

“They enjoy it, they work easily, and they motivate the men, and they all enjoy joking with each other, so men work harder when women are in the road gangs,” he adds.

By Marianne Kearney, the ILO's Consultant for ERA Project