East Timorese Sell Their Coffee to Starbucks, Starve at Home

But the blame doesn't lie on foreign multinationals. The problems are systemic and rooted in the fledgling nation's woeful infrastructure.

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JIM WATSON / AFP / GettyImages

Workers sort through coffee beans at the Timor Coffee Cooperative in Dili on Sept. 6, 2012

In East Timor, families have learned to dread the onset of November. It marks the start of “hungry season”— the time when cash from the annual coffee harvest dries up for around four months. If you’ve been to a Starbucks, you might be familiar with Timorese beans — the coffee chain purchases a substantial proportion of the national crop for its Arabian Mocha Timor blend. Yet with global world coffee prices currently hitting a four-year low, Asia’s youngest nation finds surviving the lean period a long, hard grind.

A tropical hodgepodge of craggy mountains and dense rainforests garlanded with coastal lagoons, East Timor, or Timor-Leste, only won independence from Indonesia in 2002 after a bloody conflict claimed more than 100,000 lives. Coffee is the principal cash crop, accounting for 90% of non-oil exports and directly employing a quarter of the population. “The majority of the people still rely on coffee,” Kenny Lay, director of local coffee exporter Timorcorp, tells TIME. “There is no doubt of that.”

But when the harvest ends, there is little alternative income to support this former Portuguese colony’s one million people, and malnutrition is rife. “Maybe half the kids we see are stunted,” says Dr. Dan Murphy, director of Bairo Pite Hospital in the capital Dili. “As soon as they stop breastfeeding, children don’t get fats and they don’t get proteins.”

While rice is the staple food, none is grown domestically and imported varieties are expensive. Without cash from growing coffee, the East Timorese must subsist on small family vegetable plots, typically growing corn, tapioca and potatoes. “They end up eating this stuff called akar, which is made out of the bark of a tree,” explains Murphy. “They have to pound it up and cook it and I can’t imagine it’s very nutritious.”

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According to the 2013 Global Hunger Index report released last week, East Timor ranks fourth worst in the world — behind only Burundi, Eritrea and the Comoros. An alarming 37% of East Timorese live in extreme poverty, surviving on less $1.25 a day, while the proportion of severely underweight children has increased from 40% to 45% over the past decade.

Coffee is vital to improving living standards, but farmers attempting to get more buck for their bean are caught in a vicious circle. East Timorese coffee is lauded for its organic cultivation — an accident of prohibitively expensive pesticides and fertilizers rather than environmental principles — but this also hampers yields and thus profits.

“There’s lot of room to improve both the yield and quality of the coffee,” says Lay, explaining that the nation is a comparatively small exporter of some 7,000-10,000 tons annually, depending on climatic conditions. “Some of the trees have been around for 15 or 20 years and are far too old.” Trees grow tall across the hilly terrain — a bad thing, since it means they put their energy into making branches rather than fruit — and acres are only half as productive as those in nearby Papua New Guinea. Modern techniques such as extensive pruning and superior seeds could bring enormous benefits, adds Lay.

Implementing such upgrades, though, is problematic. “Coffee grows wild in East Timor and its single marketing value is that it is organic,” says Prof. Damien Kingsbury, of Australia’s Deakin University, who has written extensively on the country. Reflecting this, the 2002 National Development Plan states that coffee production in East Timor must be exclusively organic.

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Alternative attempts to add value by processing beans domestically have had limited success. Processing machines have been supplied by the government so that coffee beans in their husks (known as “parchments”) can be sold instead of unprocessed berries, but this isn’t enough. “Parchments are sold to companies, who get most of the benefit,” explains Mariano Ferreira, agriculture spokesman for the La’o Hamutuk (Walking Together) government watchdog.

“A lot of the coffee goes to Starbucks and they get a rock bottom price here,” says Murphy. “Starbucks don’t even want you to peel the shell off the coffee, they want it fresh and so they can make all the money.”

Others were not so quick to heap blame on the cafe chain. “[Starbucks] are no different to any other corporate buyer that demands the lowest price, from what I can tell,” says Shannon French, who helped found Wild Timor Coffee after first visiting the country as a corporal in the Australian Military, which served as part of the International Stabilization Force during the battle for independence.

A spokesman for Starbucks declined to discuss sourcing procedures “for competitive reasons” when approached by TIME, but highlighted the company’s commitment to ethical practices. “Starbucks has invested more than $70 million in collaborative farmer programs and activities over the past 40 years,” he said.

Ironically, East Timor’s vast offshore oil and gas fields have led to a capital fund worth of around $11.7 bn. This cash offers huge opportunities for poverty alleviation, but opinion is split on how best to invest it. “Why not on education, which might produce a generation of skilled citizens?” says Kingsbury.

And so amid this abundance of petrodollars, and Starbucks’ record earnings, the Timorese must settle in for another hungry season. Getting a little more of the profit from that $4.95 Frappuccino to the farmers is trickier than it looks.

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