Military restrictions on civilians in Timor-Leste are putting the multi-million dollar coffee industry in jeopardy as authorities have ordered growers to stay away from their plantations, preventing them from preparing for the annual May coffee bean harvest.
More than 10,000 tonnes of coffee is produced in Timor-Leste - 80 percent of total exports - bringing in an estimated US$20 million a year. It is the main source of income for the majority of the 100,000 people living in the Ermera district.
More than 450 military and police patrol the countryside as they hunt for the rebels, including Gastao Salsinha, who attacked President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minster Xanana Gusmao in February 2008.
Authorities have ordered citizens in western districts not to go to their fields after a man was shot and killed by the military this month while collecting firewood in the mountains.
"Our military have received orders not to shoot [the rebels] - unless they shoot first. Then they can respond," Timor-Leste's Minister for Economy and Development, Joao Gonsalves, told IRIN. "But if they meet where there is a group of people and there is shooting, we may have innocent victims."
Lenilda Maya, who owns a small coffee farm in Ermera district, said people in her community were terrified of going to the fields for fear of confrontations with the defence force (FFDTL) military or Salsinha and his followers.
"Normally we would now begin to clear out the weeds around the coffee plants in preparation for the harvest," she said.
"People just want Salsinha to give himself up quickly so that things can be calm again because right now the coffee plants have already begun to bud and ripen," Maya said. "When Salsinha finally turns himself in, then people can begin to pick coffee."
"Most of those people in Ermera live from coffee - some are growers, some work for the growers, so the majority depend on coffee,” Gonsalves told IRIN. “I am not saying just for their economic wellbeing but for their survival," he said, adding that he hoped they could soon get back to the fields.
Harvest under threat
Several coffee buyers and processors have already raised concerns about the prospect of a reduced harvest, according to Gonsalves.
Photo: Jesse Wright/IRIN
|Coffee constitutes 80 percent of the country's total exports|
"They are even worried that when it comes time for the coffee picking in a few weeks, if the situation remains tense, it is going to have an impact on the coffee harvest," said Gonsalves, "but as I said to them, the security and stability of the country is very important."
The order to abandon crops caused some suffering, he said, but the military operation to catch the rebels was necessary for the long-term prosperity of Timor-Leste.
"It's better to put an end to it now rather than let it go on - they are still going to have these concerns in a year’s time, or two years’ time if we don't deal with it now," he said.
Concerns for poor farmers
Several Members of Parliament also raised concerns that the military operations were preventing subsistence farmers from tending their crops.
"We all know that people live very poorly and when agriculture is banned and people can't go to their fields to farm, then what will they eat?" asked Maria Expostu of the Timor-Leste Social Democratic Party.
Gonsalves said those affected by the military operation were eligible to apply for the government's “cash-for-work” programme, whereby they can earn around $2 a day on rural projects, such as building roads.
But while Maya and others like her brace themselves for an uncertain economic future, authorities are still hoping that Salsinha and his followers will surrender. He had earlier promised to do so some time after Ramos-Horta's return to Timor-Leste. The President returned to Dili, the capital, on 17 April.
"The signs are positive that sooner or later Gastao Salsinha will surrender," Gonsalves said, and then the farmers can get back to their labours and harvest the coffee crop.