(Revised final publication on NiCHE Canada)
In the late 1970s, Remexio sub-district in Timor-Leste lay at the heart of a devastating famine. Today, Seed Change Canada works with the Timorese NGO Raebia in a village in Remexio to promote agricultural self-reliance, biodiversity and ecological sustainability.
The landscape of Timor-Leste varies from breathtaking mountaintop and rain-blasted hillside to flat cropland and sandy beach. It is in turns green and dry, shifting colours with the season. Its people move in the sunbaked tropical space of Dili, the main city, in villages, through forest.
Yet the diverse landscape is overshadowed, when people talk about the development of what is perhaps Asia’s poorest country, by outsiders’ images, not by the land itself. What Timorese call “Rai Doben,” the beloved land, becomes a blank canvass on which foreigners dream their fantasies of what Timor is.
Never was this truer than during the devastating Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste (East Timor) that lasted from 1975-99, when foreigners piled on to explain how it was bleak, unable to support much life – still less any real prosperity. Timor became, in these fevered imaginings. a semi-wasteland.
“What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?” asked the poet T.S. Eliot. If Timor was barren, it could never be viable, never be independent. Its “dead trees” could give no shelter, its “dry stone[s] no sound of water.” Counter-images were offered, green shoots on a bleak canvass, but could not break through. As Timorese poet Abe Barreto Soares writes, even after everything is crushed, broken, made dusty, still “new buds [may] appear, flourishing the flat land.”
Images of the landscape rendered any thought of Timorese independence, in the minds of policymakers, hopeless. Thus many policymakers sided with the Indonesian army during two and a half decades of occupation – in spite of massive and systematic human rights violations and a near-genocide.
In 1978, Canadian ambassador Glen Shortliffe visited the country (I tell this story in more detail in my new book Challenge the Strong Wind: Canada and East Timor 1975-99.) Shortliffe saw famine and a huge need for development, perhaps through such Canadian NGOs as “Unitarian Services of Canada.” He blamed the landscape for the “major humanitarian problem” of famine and displacement:
East Timor is one of the most desolate areas I have seen in Southeast Asia…. The soil is dry, sandy and infertile. The mountains are rugged, some of them are over 2,000 meters high and, from what we saw, seem incapable of retaining moisture without artificial assistance…. From the air, East Timor appeared scored during the present dry season with great scars up to a mile or more wide which constitute the rivers during the rains…. In the mountains, rather than jungle or even green foliage, there is a kind of uniform brown bush. Whilst maize and rice can be grown in some areas, productivity is low and absence of moisture is a constant problem. In all, it is a foreboding, dry, desolate area. Allowing for the major difference in overall climate, it reminded me of some of the more remote parts of the Canadian Shield during the fall or spring, in terms of the ruggedness of the terrain.
Informed by this sort of account, Canada remained a fairly reliable Indonesian supporter until 1998, when General Suharto’s regime collapsed after more than three decades in power and pressure grew for a solution to the “East Timor problem.” In a subsequent referendum, the vote was massively for independence. Pro-Indonesia militia groups, acting as proxies for the Indonesian army, stepped up their violence. It took major international pressure to ensure that violence ended and the referendum results were respected.