Nov 14, 2018 Last Updated 6:23 AM, Nov 5, 2018

Tough, poor, unbeaten

Published: Sep 22, 2007

On remote Atauro Island, East Timor, drought bites harder than a mere economic crisis.

Gabrielle Samson

At low tide on Atauro women and children, woven baskets on their backs and knives in their hands, search the rocks and coral for fish, shellfish, edible weeds and small shrimp. When the sea is calm the men fish with spears and nets. At night they search for squid and octopus in the shallows, voices floating over the water and yellow lights from their lamps glowing prettily along the shore.

Seafood supplements their corn and beans. Sometimes they will add greens - pepaya, cassava and other leaves. It is not a varied diet. When the sea is rough, as it often is, there will be no seafood. Sometimes there will be a bird or a bat to add flavour. Goats and chickens are killed for weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.

Atauro is an island off the coast of East Timor - 44 kilometres to the north of Dili across the Wetar Strait, a 3,500m deep channel of often-turbulent waters. It is 105 square kilometres of dry rocky mountains, cliffs, and a narrow, infertile coastal strip. Patches of forest and fertile land are found in the highlands of the interior. 7000 People live in the five main villages and in small outlying hamlets that cling to rocky hillsides and crevices or perch on exposed beaches.

Most Atauro people are poor, living mainly on what can be eked out of dry patches of garden or harvested from the sea. When that is your life an economic crisis doesn't hit you in the same way it does a town-dweller or a prosperous farmer. You can't get much poorer and you don't rely on bought goods. Salt, sugar, tea, coffee, flour, oil, matches, soap, school books and pencils are things you buy when you can. Atauro people are proud of the fact that the current krisis moneter doesn't affect them significantly and joke about it - not unaware of the irony of the joke.

Their 'wealth' is in the sea and in their goats - rangy, ear- marked animals that roam the bare hills and are sold when cash is necessary. As prices of 'imported' goods rise so does the price of goat, so there's a kind of balance. But now more goats and pigs are being sold more often.

American milk powder

An economic crisis can be survived. A dry 'wet' season is another matter. This year Atauro people have experienced both. Late and sporadic rains meant the corn crop failed. There's only one corn crop a year. Seed is saved as the staple food for the next year and for the next planting.

This year the government gave corn seed for a second planting, but that also failed. Rain at the wrong time and too little of it caused stunted growth. Much of what grew was eaten by grubs and insects. 1998 Was a bad year. As it draws to a close there is little corn left for eating or for seed.

There has been help from outside. Apart from government aid with seed corn in January 1998, food aid from America arrived in March when food shortages were reported. Each family, regardless of need, was given a bag of rice, 5 litres of cooking oil, sugar and 9 cans of milk powder. Public servants with incomes 20 to 30 times higher received the same aid as 'subsistence' families. Families with two children were given the same as families with eleven.

While this aid was appreciated and did assist families, it is puzzling why a luxury item like milk powder, not part of the usual diet, was included, and lots of it. Bought food, because it is scarce and usually bought in very small quantities, is not stored but eaten immediately. Consuming large quantities of milk- fats, alien to the digestive systems of most people, caused many cases of diarrohea, both in adults and children. It seemed local people were not consulted about appropriate foods.

Living on Atauro one is very aware that poverty is not just lack of material goods and money. It is not having a say in things that matter. Atauro people are poor because they lack the things the modern world has to offer - quality health, education, information and communication services, affordable transport.

They also lack the knowledge and self-confidence to demand such things. In 1996 only 10% of the population had completed six years of primary school. Most people are illiterate. On Atauro there is no telecommunication system, no mail service, no newspapers or books (except in minimal and inaccessible school libraries) and no ferry to the mainland. Yet in the past eighteen months more than Rp 400 million (AU$ 200,000 before the crisis) has been spent on roads that are now already unusable, and on an unused 'tourist' hotel.

These are not the choices of Atauro people. They don't have vehicles. They don't need hotels. People here die because they are far from medical help and hospitals, because there is no way to get them to the mainland quickly. The local community clinic is limited in staff and facilities. Their radio to the mainland has been out of order for months.

Sometimes the clinic does heal, but people generally prefer to use local traditional healers and shamans for health crises, for birthing. They still believe strongly in magic and ancestral powers.

Care International began a 'Food for Work' program on Atauro in August this year in which people work on 'useful' community projects in return for a monthly supply of rice (50 kg). The first task was repairing the fence around the village to keep goats on the hills away from houses and gardens. Deciding on 'useful' community projects is not easy. The program has been critised for creating a dependency on 'payment' for work that the community would normally carry out anyway, a crippling dependency that has already been developed through many government programs. However, as corn stocks diminish, the aid of American rice is helping people to make ends meet. There are still at least five months before a corn harvest. People are already preparing their gardens, but planting will not begin until the rainy season is established - usually in December.

Atauro people are tough. They are survivors. Most of them are descendents of the original Adade, Manroni and Huma Ngili (Maquili) clans who learnt to live in the harsh conditions of the island generations ago.

Others are descendents of Anggolan and mainland Timorese exiles sent to the island in turn by Portuguese and Indonesian governments. The Portuguese used the island as a prison for Timorese and Portuguese wrong-doers and dissidents from their African colonies. The Indonesians used it as a place of exile for families and supporters of anti-integration forces in the 80s.

These people learnt to live on infertile soil, to live without a close or reliable water source, to eat whatever could be eaten, scrounged from the dry, rocky land.


I have lived with Atauro people for three years and am in awe of their toughness and durability, their laconic humour, their unsentimental sense of survival.

I am part of a team working with the community in developing education and small income-generating activities. We work with teachers, parents and children at kindergarten, primary and high school levels; with women's fish processing and poultry groups, and a farming (vegetable growing) group.

We are exploring permaculture and other dryland farming techniques. Our programs receive funds from the New Zealand government, World Council of Churches, Uniting Church of Australia and Rotary International. They are small, localised, self-help programs and we believe they count.

With the economic crisis and failure of the corn crop, the poultry group is facing problems with feed for chickens. The sale of chickens and eggs to the mainland, where chickens are twice the price and eggs three times, should be maximised. But transport is too expensive and irregular. The women's fish processing group in Biqueli Village, relying totally on locally available materials, provides a small income for nine families.

In the schools we focusing on developing literacy and active/ participatory learning, developing with local teachers, methods, and materials that will assist children to achieve their potential as readers, writers, critical thinkers and problem- solvers.

The high school program aims to develop skills and knowledge in farming, fishing, and poultry-keeping. It uses local tutors and has a practical, participatory approach. As much as possible we use the local environment, local knowledge and culture as a base. We are trialling 'readers' with local settings and stories that validate local experience. Next year we hope to open a children's library.

Gabrielle Samson ( is an Australian volunteer. She comes from Brisbane.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999

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