TIMOR LESTE: UNDP OFFERS NEW BEGINNING TO SURVIVORS OF ‘BLACK SEPTEMBER’

By Sammy Mwiti, Communications Officer.

Speaking in a slow, labored and sad voice, Mr. Jorge Lafu, a native
of Nibin village, Oesillo sub-district of Oecessi recounts the
psychological impact of the infamous 1999 massacre on his community.
“We were terribly traumatized,” he says, referring to the incident on
8th September 1999, or the so called “Black September” when in an
unprecedented orgy of terror and destruction, Pro-Indonesian militias
killed 82 people in the area, days after the announcement of the
referendum results which overwhelmingly favored the independence
vote. Among the first victims was his village chief, Mr. Armando
Sani. It’s a loss he says, the community finds very difficult to cope
with, because it shattered lives and livelihoods forever.

But courtesy of support provided by UNDP, Jorge is now at the
forefront of a comprehensive recovery and post-conflict
reconstruction effort which when fully accomplished, may offer a case
study in strategic nation-building. Jorge is a Community Activation
Facilitator (CAF), one of 18 employed under the Oecussi Community
Activation Programme (OCAP) of UNDP. It is a project that blends
elements of innovative farming technology, community mobilization
techniques and micro-credit enterprises to facilitate sustainable
development in a territory blighted by chronic poverty, social
injustice and geographic isolation. Oecussi with an estimated 64,000
population is the poorest of the 13 districts in the country, rating
the lowest in attainment of Millennium Development Goals, and other
indicators. An enclave that’s not easily accessible from the mainland
by land or sea, it poses a communications nightmare to hordes of
development workers based in the area and other personnel.

The EURO 3.3 million European Commission funded five-year project
which ends in 2009 emphasizes on building institutions for the poor.
Community facilitators like Jorge who have varied working experience
have been instrumental in establishing a record 241 Self Help Groups
(SHG) so far, responsible for a wide array of socio-economic
activities ranging from vegetable production and block demonstrations
to seed multiplication as well as well variety selection programmes.
Also incorporated are sloping agricultural land technology (SALT) and
drip irrigation techniques.

Among the chief OCAP counterparts are the Office of the Secretary of
State for Oecussi (SOS), District Programme Working Committee and the
Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Ministry of Development.
“Our approach is fairly simple,” explains Mr. Jaiswal Jitendra, the
agricultural specialist for OCAP. “The groups provide training and
experimental opportunities where the members are exposed to improved
farming techniques. They also receive tools, seeds and fertilizers.”
Jaiswal, as he is better known, comes from Nepal where he honed his
skills before joining the UNDP’s United Nations Volunteers (UNV)
Programme. He has been based in Oecussi for two years and speaks the
Timor-Leste’s national language Tetum, fluently.

“From the group, individuals replicate the practices in their own
gardens and villages, creating a multiplier effect” relates Jaiswal.
The group membership is roughly a dozen each. Through the group,
members can also avail savings and credit facilities, he says. They
can equally explore commercial or large-scale farming. “I would like
other people especially women to visit us and learn from our
success,” Mrs. Maria Bana 20, remarks. She is a member of the
“Tetebau” group in Bobocase village, which specializes in vegetable
cultivation. “I will continue being a member of this group because it
is beneficial to me. I can work here and earn some money to support
my family.” The group concept has been useful in promoting peace and
reconciliation, reckons Mrs. Merita De Jesus Marques, a Council of
State member to the President’s Office who is also the Coordinator of
OCAP’s Community Development Fund (CDF), the avenue for communities
to propose community development projects. “By coming together as a
group, people are able to deal with the trauma of the past
collectively,” she says, noting that increased work and income
generating opportunities tend to create a sense of healing, a
catharsis of sorts.

It’s not all been smooth-sailing, however. Poor skills (especially in
rural agriculture) at the local level coupled with weak coordination
mechanisms and a poor infrastructure, marketing and communication
network have played havoc with some of the plans, leading to delays
in implementation. Pests have also proved to be a real nuisance,
defying frequent attempts to eradicate them scientifically. Other
problems are of a technical nature. “It must be recognized that once
SHGs are established, the programme also creates high expectations
from the community SHGs,” notes Mr. Koen Walter Toonen, OCAP Chief
Technical Advisor, in a recent report. “Sometimes they expect
financial inputs for savings and/or credit, or equipment but
certainly continuous support particularly in opening up markets for
their products.” Hoping to capitalize on the area’s potential, two
new micro-finance organizations the Moris-Rasik and IMfTL opened new
branches in Oecusse recently. Contending that it is of “utmost
importance” that these microfinance institutions succeed, Koen cites
experience from other countries, saying if microfinance organizations
are not able to financially break even, “a potential collapse of the
organization puts poor people into debt or at least leads them to
lose savings.” Meanwhile Jorge Lafu sees the increasing popularity of
the self-help groups as evidence of a new awakening, which augurs
well for the future. “I have received requests from 20 people seeking
learn from our example, and establishing their own groups,” he says
adding, “people are keen to rebuild their lives and they view the
groups as promising, as a fresh start. That is very good,” he says.

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