Impact Stories

ERA Stories: Opening up remote communities in Timor-Leste

Sitting on a brand new motorbike, in front of his newly constructed house, Gilberto Baptista, a busy motorcycle taxi driver, admits he owes all his recent good fortune to the newly rehabilitated Leohitu road, Timor-Leste.

Feature | 21 August 2015
Gilberto Baptista, sits on his new bike, which he uses for his thriving motorcycle taxi business. © ILO/M. Kearney
Leohitu, Timor Leste (ILO News) - Sitting on a brand new motorbike, in front of his newly constructed house, Gilberto Baptista, a busy motorcycle taxi driver, admits he owes all his recent good fortune to the newly rehabilitated Leohitu road.

“Before it was expensive to transport goods or anything here. But now after 3 months of work, I could build this house,” he says pointing to a modest cement brick house, which is an upgrade from the traditional palm stem, and grass roofed houses he lived in previously. Gilberto Baptista earned the money for the house materials working as community foreman building the road.

As a former drainage construction worker, Gilberto Baptista was in demand, and he managed to build a new house, and then save enough money to buy a new motorbike, which he used to run his thriving motorcycle taxi business.

Leohitu is just 5 kilometres from the main town of Balibo, but it might well have been a world away before the road construction. Two years ago, when the road was a dangerous, potholed rural track, Baptista earned $10 per week,
occasionally taking people to Balibo. Now his weekly earnings have jumped to $90 per week, as people travel not just to Balibo, but also from Balibo to the nearby Indonesian border to trade, or visit family.

Gilberto Baptista takes local children to school. © ILO/M. Kearney
With a more secure income, Gilberto Baptista has big dreams for his four children; he’d like them to attend high school, and eventually university. Such ambitions would have been impossible before; attending high school was difficult for most children as it took 2 hours or more to walk to the closest high school.

The Leohitu-Balibo road has opened up five hamlets to the main road in Balibo, and was built under the European Union funded rural road building program, called the Enhancing Rural Access Project, which is implemented by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Across Timor Leste remote communities who were effectively cut off from schools, government services, and access to markets, have had their lives changed by the ERA road-building program; 140 kilometres of roads have been rehabilitated across 6 districts, providing work for 8,000 people from the communities.

“This road has brought really huge progress,” says the village chief, Antonio Pereira. “If there was natural disasters, and people hurt, or if a child was injured, all they could do was carry them to Balibo. But now the ambulance can make it,” he says, with a broad smile on his face.

“Before women would give birth at home, but now they call the ambulance, or the midwife, and they can give birth at the health clinic,” he says. Being able to give birth in the local health clinic is a life-saving step for Timorese women, who have some of the highest rates of death due to child birth in South-East Asia, mostly because they give birth without any medical assistance, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

New hopes for Leohitu’s children. © ILO/M. Kearney
The Leohitu- Balibo road has also opened up opportunities for Leohitu’s children, says Vitorino da Silva Pereira, a farmer, who has a son attending a newly opened pre-school. When the Leohitu road was just a rough, muddy track there was a primary school but teachers were frequently late, and children spent over 3 hours traveling to and from school.

However the road rehabilitation makes it easy for the Department of Education to rehabilitate the primary school, and with assistance from an international nongovernment agency, they’ve begun building a preschool. Whilst the new school is under construction, the pre-schoolers have moved into the old primary school building.Vitorino da Silva Periera is impressed with the new pre-school, and its effect on his youngest son, 4- year –old Rivaldo.
“He’s so enthusiastic about school, he loves going there. Whatever he learns at school, he teaches us, and he’s trying to make us smarter!” says Vitorino da Silva.

For Vitorino da Silva’s oldest son, 12- year old Antonio, who used to make the 2 hour walk to the high school, the road has made a huge difference to his daily commute, and his ability to concentrate in school.

“This road is a great road. I don’t feel tired anymore,” says Antonio, who travels on a small bus to school.

The article was written by Marianne Kearney, the ILO's consultant for ERA Project