Posted by: rlearmonth | April 19, 2008

Field Trips

After months of preparation and planning, we are beginning a few trips out of Dili to other parts of the country. A team is leaving today, a Saturday, for the separate enclave of Oe’cusse. Although part of Timor-Leste, Oe’cusse is separated from the rest of the country by part of Indonesia. Until last week, travel to Oe’cusse was difficult because the stretch of Indonesian territory between required two border crossings, currency exchange, and the attendant delays and hassles associated with international travel, occasionally aggravated by a certain animus between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Most Timorese going to Oe’cusse prefer the overnight ferry, which leaves from Dili and arrives in Oe’cusse the next morning.

Last week, agreement was reached and the laws governing the Timor-Leste and Indonesia border crossings were changed to permit freer traffic between the two countries. Our team, accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Justice, including the Minister, will travel overland.

Next week, teams will visit Manatuto, to the east, and Liquica, to the west of the capital toward the Indonesia border. Manatuto has a largely matrimonial family structure, which has some interesting implications for property rights and land tenure issues. Not least, there may be significant differences on how conflict over land is resolved and how disputes are mediated.

Posted by: rlearmonth | April 19, 2008

The Kayak

I took temporary custody of a kayak a few weeks ago, from a New Zealander who has left the country for a few months and needed to have someone look after it for him while he is away. He was staying in a hotel a few kilometers down the beach from my cabin. I met him there on a Sunday morning and set off to paddle back to my place. Of course, this enterprise attracted considerable attention from a herd of little boys, who were eager to launch me into the surf. In spite of the “help,” I managed to paddle past the surf and into clear water without capsizing, an achievement for a neophyte paddler.

Approaching the beach in front of my cabin, I again attracted a herd of little boys, some in the water and some on the beach. It would have been fun letting them try paddling, but there was a bit of a current, and the wind was picking up from the northeast, beginning to churn up a few whitecaps. So my ever-eager crew helped me pull the boat out of the water, and I let each of them sit in it and simulate paddling.

The kayak is now under my deck. I have been taking it out to practice the fine art of paddling. But I’ll never get as casually skilled as the local fishermen piloting their dugouts in and out. They know exactly how to get through the surf gracefully and seemingly without effort.


Posted by: rlearmonth | April 19, 2008

The President Returns

President Jose Ramos-Horta returned to Timor-Leste this week, after having been shot and nearly killed in a raid on his home February 11, 2008. He is widely revered in Timor-Leste, and returned to a very enthusiastic welcome – schoolchildren in their uniforms lined the streets of Dili, government workers were allowed a few hours off to participate, and my Timorese colleagues and I went to a bar overlooking the main road where the caravan was to pass and sipped cappuccino while watching the event.

Those who regularly read this blog may remember that the rebel leader Alfredo was killed in the raid on the President’s home. In the weeks that followed, many of Alfredo’s fighters turned themselves in to the authorities, bringing some hope that the insurgency was finally ending. Ominously, one of Alfredo’s lieutenants recently declared that the raid on Ramos-Horta’s house was not a raid at all, that they went to the house to resume a negotiation begun by Ramos-Horta with them some time before. This seems to suggest that this person is now assuming leadership of the “petitioners,” as the disaffected former soldiers are known, and further, that he has no intention of giving up the insurgency. There could be more tough times ahead.

Posted by: rlearmonth | March 25, 2008

Markets in Dili


Market vendors have established informal stalls in various places around Dili, the capital. During the civil unrest of 2006, most of the market stalls in government-designated areas were burned. And while the government has endeavored to establish new sites for them, many vendors have chosen to market their goods and produce at other places of their own choosing. This has presented a bit of a problem, both to traffic and to the government. Traffic is affected because the growing market stalls tend to expand into the street; government is affected because, awkwardly, the vendors defiantly fly the flag of the opposition political party, perhaps because they fault government for allowing their stalls to be destroyed in 2006.

Approaching the end of the rainy season, the markets are full of produce. The vendors operate through an ingenious marketing system that neatly adjusts to supply and demand. They display their produce in small pyramids, carefully stacked according to quality and appearance. A stack of whatever it is costs a dollar. If the produce is small and unattractive, the pyramid of produce will be bigger than if it is of higher quality. Both stacks are still a dollar. When supply is plentiful, as it now for, say, eggplant, the customer gets five or six nice eggplants for a dollar. As supply diminishes, there will be a smaller and sadder-looking pyramid of eggplants, still for a dollar. Among its advantages, the vendors seldom have to make change.

An uninitiated customer might want fewer items than are in a vendor-established pyramid. Don’t think about it.

Posted by: rlearmonth | March 22, 2008

A Seahorse for Harper

I have a granddaughter who loves ponies and horses, and most things associated with them. So when I heard that there had been seahorses sighted at a dive site near Taci Tolu, I went to try to find one. I thought Harper might like to see a non-terrestrial kind of horse.

My dive partner and I were initially disappointed in the visibility, only five meters at best. It is still rainy season, and the water holds sediment from stream runoff and currents. However, after about 30 minutes we were rewarded by seeing a solitary seahorse at a depth of 19 meters – such a delicate and fragile creature.

I took the picture, which I’m afraid is a little blurry, with a small Olympus Stylus 770 SW, rated as waterproof to 10 meters. I have taken it to 22 meters, without apparent negative consequences. At that depth, the LCD screen becomes concave.


Posted by: rlearmonth | March 13, 2008

Moving ahead

After four months of searching, I now have a Timorese counterpart, and she and I are beginning to work out what the conflict resolution and dispute mediation part of the property rights and land tenure project should look like. Those that have read about this project know that this has been a major concern; I simply have not been willing to move ahead very far without having a counterpart. And, recruitment has not been easy.

Ursula, our new Task Manager for Conflict Resolution and Dispute Mediation has been, and still is, a student in peace studies at an Australian university. She has also been a senior advisor to the Minister of Labor and Community Reinsertion (really), responsible for implementing the ministry’s Simu Malu program, which means “mutual acceptance” in Tetum. The Simu Malu program was designed to care for internally displaced persons (IDPs) displaced by conflict and return them to their home villages. She also coordinated humanitarian assistance to the IDPs on behalf of the Ministry of Labor and Community Reinsertion and the Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Restoration of Normalcy. So she has been an important player on the government side in addressing some of the most difficult issues facing Timor-Leste following the civil discord and riots of 2006. I feel lucky to be able to work with her.

Over the next few months, we will be establishing a framework for dispute mediation, based upon traditional structures and practices. Growing out of this, we will develop public information materials stressing the importance of peaceful means of settling disputes, arguably not a prominent feature of traditional Timorese life and culture. We will also begin to develop a map of conflict areas, showing in as much detail as we can find where recent or longstanding animosities have prevented dispute resolution, either through traditional means or through government intervention. And finally, we will begin to develop training materials that we can use in the field to train community leaders on dispute mediation techniques.

So we move ahead. We will present a briefing to Parliament in a few weeks, and are eager to begin field operations once the state of emergency is lifted. Our tag line is, “Ita Nia Rai,” meaning, “It’s our country.”

Posted by: rlearmonth | March 12, 2008

“Wheels Up” party

I have been invited by one of my new friends to a “Wheels Up” party this weekend. This is a new concept to me; when a visiting delegation completes its mission and leaves the country for home, it is customary for the regular in-country project staff to have a Wheels Up party, celebrating the takeoff (wheels up) of the plane that takes them back to wherever they came from.

After spending the last thirty-some years managing projects from Washngton, DC, and making four to six supervision and support missions to field projects a year, I wonder with some discomfort how many Wheels Up parties I have inspired.


Posted by: rlearmonth | March 12, 2008

Outrigger Canoe


This is an outrigger dugout used for fishing. Note the clever way the outriggers are attached. That’s Atauro island in the background. Atauro is 30 kilometers north of Timor-Leste’s north coast.

Posted by: rlearmonth | March 2, 2008

Diving in Timor-Leste

Diving in Timor-Leste is spectacular. Before relocating here, I had taken the minimal instruction to get an introductory dive, and made three dives. I was hooked. The water is clear, clean and warm, with a profusion of fish and colorful coral reefs.

I arrived here in the rainy season – perfect for doing the classroom study to get a diving certification. I finished that last week, and did the confined water tests immediately thereafter. This weekend, I crammed the four requisite open water dives into two days – maybe not my smartest move. But I’m now a certified open water diver – a tired one.

Much of the diving here is from shore. That is, the water gets deep so close to shore that divers can wade into the water and go down to at least 12 meters within 50 meters of entering. The little Timorese island of Atauro is only thirty kilometers from the north coast. The water depth between the Timorese mainland and Atauro is 3,800 meters. Whales, dolphin and other big sea animals can be seen just off shore. The first time I saw a whale here, last November, I heard it blow before I saw it. It and three others were no more than 50 meters off shore.

At the end of todays last dive, my companion and I freed the fishing net of a fisherman in a dugout on the surface. It had become hopelessly tangled in an old anchor at about 12 meters. He watched from his canoe, and was most grateful.


Posted by: rlearmonth | February 24, 2008


Immediately after the February 11, 2008 coup attempt, a state of emergency was declared by the Prime Minister and a curfew was established. The initial curfew was for 48 hours, but was then extended for another ten days. The curfew was quite stringent, requiring everyone to be off the streets from 8:00 PM until 6:00 AM.

Last week, the Parliament debated extending the state of emergency, and the curfew. On Friday, it was announced that the curfew would be extended for another 30 days, but the hours would be from 10:00 PM until 6:00 AM.

There is still considerable tension on the street, even though there have been no demonstrations or acts of violence that I am aware of. Rumors abound, including the usual cannard that the coup attempt was staged by government. Stay tuned.

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