Cracking Poverty in East Timor

Crack the shell but don’t break the nut. It’s simple advice for farmers in East Timor, a small, impoverished island country near Australia. But this simple advice is part of the reason they are doubling or tripling their profits from the sale of candlenut, a waxy hard-shelled nut used for food and (you guessed it) candles.

In a village near the town of Baucau, a group of candlenut farmers talk about the difference Catholic Relief Services has made in their lives. “Before CRS came here, local traders offered only 10 to 15 cents a kilogram for candlenut,” says a farmer named Vicente. “CRS gave us training on the three classes of nut quality, including size, shape, and color, and formed us into an association.” If the nut is whole and large, farmers can receive more money.

East Timor

Farmers and CRS staff sort candlenuts in East Timor. Photo by Sean Sprague for CRS

The CRS program keeps farmers from being taken advantage of. “Traders used to mix up the different classes to get a better price from the farmers, and then separate them later,” says Ryan Russell, Livelihood Coordinator for CRS in Timor Leste, the country’s official name. Farmers now know they can ask for a better price if they provide sorted, whole nuts.

The result: they can make 40-50 cents a kilo on the best class of candlenut. For some, the money means the difference between subsistence living and planning for a future. “I use the extra money for rice and school fees,” says one woman. Other farmers use it to build a stronger house or a better roof, an important concern in an area where high winds and landslides do a lot of damage. One farmer laughs that you can “use the money to get married”—men who marry usually need to give the bride’s family livestock like a buffalo.

CRS also links the candlenut farmers to markets they weren’t aware of earlier, including overseas ones. Thanks to the CRS program, 40 farmer groups—representing over 3,900 people—are selling 40% more candlenut at higher prices than they did before the project started in 2006. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, CRS is currently working to expand the project to new areas, so that 1,500 more families can benefit. Poverty can be a tough nut to crack, but with training and support, Timorese farmers are doing it.

Laura Sheahen is the regional information office for Asia.

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One Response to “Cracking Poverty in East Timor”

  1. Celestino Rangel Says:

    Thanks for all of you were was publication our candlenut project activity in Baucau east Timor. now our project face more challenge like clime change we hope that challenge will be over.

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