East Timor

BUILDING A NEW NATION

Canadians bring hope to an impoverished land

WARREN CARAGATA August 19 2002
East Timor

BUILDING A NEW NATION

Canadians bring hope to an impoverished land

WARREN CARAGATA August 19 2002

BUILDING A NEW NATION

Canadians bring hope to an impoverished land

East Timor

WARREN CARAGATA

IN THE SUMMER, when the rains stop, East Timor’s Loes River is hardly a river at all. It trickles in meandering streams through a wide valley that drops down from dry hillsides fringed with gum trees. For districts like Asulao Sare, pop. 1,300, far up the valley, the dry season means an ongoing search for drinking water. It is not uncommon for women and children— the usual water bearers—to walk 10 km to fetch it. But up a narrow passage into the mountains, through stands of giant bamboo and teak with leaves the size of dinner plates, is the answer to Asulao Sare’s dry season: a concrete holding tank and a small dam across a struggling creek. The labour to construct this rudimentary water system, one of three in the district, was local, but the money to build it came

from Canada. “With this system, we’re proud and happy,” says villager Armando Martins. “Now my wife can relax a bit.” The $8,000 water system is only a small part of Canada’s contribution to the birth of the world’s newest nation, East Timor—or, to use the official name of this small half-island state 500 km north of Australia, Timor-Leste. An RCMP officer heads the fledgling Timorese police force, a Vancouver aquatic biologist has been helping to create a fisheries department, and a Canadian runs the biggest supermarket in the capital of Dili. Canadian aid groups like Ottawa-based USC Canada are working in villages across the country, and Canadian taxpayers this year will contribute more than $6 million in foreign aid. But East Timor, which became inde-

pendent in May after a quarter-century of repressive Indonesian occupation and then two years of United Nations administration, will need all the help it can get: it is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita annual income of $540.

East Timor has a sad history of neglect and violence. After its 1999 referendum in favour of independence, pro-Indonesian militias went on a month-long rampage that left the population scattered, homes and businesses burned to the ground, livestock and motor vehicles stolen. “You’re really building a country,” says East Timor police chief Peter Miller, an assistant commissioner of the RCMP who is expected to return to his job in Ottawa this December. “You’re really building from scratch.”

How much from scratch is evident from a trip to Canadian aid projects in the Loes valley, near the border with the Indonesian province of West Timor. Before Canada started putting money into the area, villagers earned virtually no income. They ate what they grew and, when that ran out, they went hungry.

Now, in the Loes, Canadian aid money has helped put into place irrigation systems so farmers can grow more, selling some of their crops and using the proceeds to, among other things, buy store necessities like soap and cooking oil. Another Canada-funded project involves a revolving credit scheme using cows instead of money. A villager gets a cow in return for planting fruit and shade trees to counter the effects of deforestation. He then gives the first calf borne by that cow back to the East Timor aid group that runs the project. The calf is given to another farmer, and the process continues.

It will take many such projects to make a dent in East Timor’s poverty. In Asulao Sare, Napoleon Nokonhu, 32, lives in a thatched hut made of palm branches with is wife and six children. He has a cornfield and pineapple, mango and jackfruit trees he has planted to provide extra food and a little income. He can’t really say how much he earns in a year, but it’s clear from his torn shirt and shoeless children there isn’t a lot. Domingo Martins, another farmer in the area, supports his five chil-

dren on about $80 a year—depending on the rains and how many animals he can sell (a goat fetches about $40). Unfortunately for East Timor, Napoleon and Domingo are hardly economic exceptions. World Bank figures show 63 per cent of Timorese live on less than US$2 a day.

Things are not much better in Dili. The sleepy capital, where pigs rut outside the main government building, was transformed by two years of UN administration that employed more than 3,000 foreigners. Because of their presence, Dili may have had more espresso machines per capita than Vancouver’s West End. But it was a bubble economy because of UN money, and with independence the bubble has burst. The new UN mission is much smaller, and the new government now has only about 120 foreign advisers.

One of those who profited during that two years was Kirk MacManus, general manager of Hello Mister, Dili’s first and largest supermarket. MacManus, 36, is hardly your typical store manager, although he concedes that back home in Ottawa, he once spent a few weeks work-

ing at Loblaws collecting shopping carts. During a 1993 backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, he ended up in Cambodia, where a UN mission had been established the year before to implement a peace deal and run elections. He started working for Morris Supplies, an Australian combatcatering company serving the mission. After Cambodia, Morris was contracted to handle supplies for the UN’s Somalia mission, and MacManus followed.

It was sometimes dangerous work. In October 1993, while driving a truck from the main UN base in Mogadishu to the company compound at the port, MacManus and his crew, including Tyson Morris, the son of the company’s owner, were caught in an ambush and Morris was killed. But MacManus continued to do work for the company until 1999, when two men affiliated with Morris called MacManus to see if he wanted to scout

opportunities in East Timor. “When I got here, I needed a razor and I couldn’t find one,” he recalls. “I figured if I couldn’t get something that basic, maybe what this place needed was a supermarket.” Four months later, Hello Mister opened its doors, initially to great success. But the store, owned by MacManus’s Morris associates, is hurting now, because half of its business came from foreigners who have since left. “The UN created a false economy,” MacManus says. “What’s here is not normal and it can’t be sustained.”

The fishery could provide jobs and export dollars, and Al Stockwell, a biologist with West Vancouver-based Hatfield Consultants, is trying to help the country develop it. During Indonesian rule, the offshore fishery was controlled by outsiders from the nearby Indonesian island of Sulawesi. When the Indonesians left, the military and militias destroyed or took away fishing boats and nets and wrecked the fishing port at Hera, east of Dili. Now the Timorese, with only outrigger canoes, confine their limited fishery to coastal areas. Stockwell says foreign fishing company representatives regularly come to East Timor, looking for access to potentially valuable offshore zones. The problem, he says, is that East Timor has not established rules governing the fishery or set its maritime boundaries. “There’s a lot of frustration,” Stockwell notes.

The most visible Canadian presence in East Timor may well be Miller and his contingent of 19 police officers from the RCMP and other forces across Canada, all wearing Maple Leaf badges on their uniforms. Their $2.4 million in Canadian government funding represents almost half of Canada’s annual aid budget for the new nation. Miller is responsible not only for 1,250 UN personnel from 41 countries who now police East Timor, but also for some 2,000 local officers who make up the new police force that will take over in 2004. “It’s an ambitious schedule but there’s a lot of pressure from the UN and donors to get the job done,” says Miller.

When he took over command from a UN predecessor in November 2001, Miller found a police force in trouble, with problems among East Timorese officers and UN police who were hardly setting a good example. There were cases of officers drinking on duty and using excessive

force; discipline and motivation were in short supply. “The UN was not happy with the way things were going,” Miller says. But with previous experience in UN police missions in Haiti and the Western Sahara, Miller, 52, may have been tailor-made for the task he faced. He’s an open, friendly man with some experience dealing with cultural sensitivities: in 1987 he was part of a task force that recommended Sikh RCMP officers be allowed to wear turbans. But his cheery demeanour masks a no-nonsense professionalism born of 33 years in the RCMP.

His office at police headquarters in Dili is bereft of personal touches, except for small photos of his three grandchildren and an RCMP musical ride poster in the

anteroom. Early in his tenure, eight UN police were found sleeping on night duty. Miller’s response was swift—all were disciplined and four of the offending officers were sent home in disgrace. Later, five of 13 district police chiefs were replaced. “We run a tight ship,” Miller says. His tough stand has won the admiration of the East Timorese government. “He has done an outstanding job,” says Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta. “Under him, the police have improved dramatically.” But for East Timor, there is still far to go. Asked if he doesn’t find the challenges too daunting, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri answers simply: “We have no option.” East Timor, he says, persevered through 25 years of occupation that left a quarter of the population dead, but people refused to give up. Ramos-Horta says there’s no reason to think that, having won its freedom, East Timor will now falter. “The pessimists would always wish the worst for East Timor and time and again we have disappointed them,” he says. Canada’s ambassador, Ferry de Kerckhove, concurs. “East Timor will get over the hump,” he says. And Canadians will be lending a hand.

East Timor, which became independent in May after a quarter-century of Indonesian occupation, will need all the help it can get-it has a per capita annual income of only $540