The far east of Indonesia, 1979–84: Oxfam, famine in East Timor and the amazing growth of Leucaena leucocephala in NTT

... In which Oxjam works in the very different Jar east of Indonesia — first with relief supplies in the war in Indonesia’s East Timor, and then with helping to distribute the amazing lamtoro agung seeds to reforest the region.

Apart from working in Central Java, during my time in Oxfam I was also hustled by them into preparing a response to the entirely man-made famine in East Timor. With the end of Portuguese colonial rule, in 1978, Indonesia decided it was going to occupy the country in order to avoid the possibility of a neighbouring local Marxist State which would oppose Indonesia. In fact, the appalling cruelty and human rights abuses of the Indonesian occupation stimulated the growth of a Socialist and nationalist rebellion among the East Timorese, resulting in such a problem for Indonesia that they finally gave the country back its independence in 2001, after a terrible scorched earth policy that destroyed nearly all that they had built in 24 years of occupation (more on this in Chapter 14 when I went to work in East Timor after its independence).

In 1979—80, word was getting out to the outside world of disease epidemics and famine in East Timor caused by the destructive policies of the Indonesian Army against the local population. Although the Indonesians made East Timor into a thirty-third province (Timor Timur), it was, in effect, a combat zone and training arena for the Indonesian Army, with very little involvement of the civilian population except as objects of control and terror. Oxfam decided to respond to the famine and health crisis by an airlift of food and medicine and the setting up of emergency health posts. This was to be done, however, in a country that did not admit that there was any crisis in their new province, and it had to be done without any foreigners being allowed in for planning, distribution, management or monitoring. My predecessor, Glen Williams, and I, very diplomatically, enrolled the retired Surgeon General of the Indonesian Army, General

Suroyo, who was now running a Catholic hospital in Central Java, to mount a relief effort in East Timor. He was Catholic, as were all of the suffering people of East Timor, and he agreed to do what he could with Oxfam’s help. In a very feudal manner he called up all his ex-staffers, now also retired, to come back and work with him, and he got permission from the Indonesian military to undertake a relief project. Oxfam sent me a very large amount of money - General Suroyo lent me two bodyguards as I carried this money around Jakarta buying supplies, and then he talked the military authorities into allowing a civilian plane with emergency supplies to land in East Timor. I was not allowed to visit for a further 20 years.

I said at the start of this book that I rarely operated at the policy or political level. There was one episode in connection with East Timor that was different. Oxfam phoned me up to say that the UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, was coming to Jakarta, and I had to get alongside him to make Oxfam’s feelings known about the UK selling British planes to the Indonesian Air Force as they were being used in East Timor. I pressured the UK Ambassador to give me half an hour in the embassy to meet him before his “proper” meetings with the Indonesian Government. I prepped myself well and was introduced to Lord Carrington, eager to put, forcefully, Oxfam’s position.

Good luck to others who deal in such situations frequently, but I failed miserably. Lord Carrington snowed me, asking after me and my family, assuring me of HMG’s interest in the situation, and, I am sure, washing his hands of me as soon as he left the room into discussions of further arms’ sales to the Indonesian Army. I do not believe it was a very successful policy intervention, but I did get alongside him and said my piece.

One spin-off from Oxfam’s involvement in the East Timor emergency was an appreciation of the difference that Eastern Indonesia presented from fertile Central Java. East Timor was the eastern end of the last island in the long archipelago of islands from Java towards the east — Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores and Timor. The further east you went the drier and less hospitable was the terrain, and also the more Catholic and animist; East Timor, following its 400-year colonisation by Portugal, was officially Catholic but included a large population that paid homage to indigenous and animist religious systems. Even further east from Timor was Papua, but that was a completely different environment, climate, flora, fauna, population and economy.

The Indonesian Government’s development research community was producing more and more information about the poverty' and lack of development in Eastern Indonesia and this was centred on NTB (Nusa Tenggara Barat) — the western archipelago comprising Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa — and NTT (Nusa Tenggara Timur — the eastern archipelago)

comprising Flores, Timor and the smaller islands of Sabu and Rote. Tim-Tim (Timur Timor or East Timor) was still at this time under the control of the army, and had been since the invasion of 1978, was not the focus of any development efforts of the Government of Indonesia, and was off-limits for any foreign NGOs.

One of the greatest problems in NTT was the lack of rainfall; there was also the deforestation that had taken place of the existing tree coverage. This had resulted in very dry land areas, the drying up of rivers, a lack of forage for animals and a lack of firewood for cooking. Oxfam, like many INGOs, responded to the government’s call for attention to be paid to NTT province and established a branch office in Kupang, the capital.

A very unique development intervention had happened just at this time - which was filled with rumours and hearsay. As we heard it, a Catholic priest from Flores had gone to Hawaii for some religious purpose and had been impressed with a tree species indigenous to Hawaii which he thought would be helpful in NTT. It was called in the Philippines giant ipil-ipil, and in Hawaii the giant leucaena. It is one of the mimosa family and known in Indonesia as lamtoro or petai cina, but the new version from Hawaii was quickly called lanttoro agung or giant lamtoro. Its Latin name was Leucaena leucocephala. It thrived in dry areas, it grew vigorously, and its leaves were nutritious to livestock (with the exception of horses — the rumour was that if horses were fed a diet only of lamtoro they lost their hair). It could be pollarded for firewood and made passable charcoal. Because it grew so fast and could be pollarded, using it for charcoal did not produce barren and deforested land. It was also a nitrogen-fixing plant so was a natural fertiliser of barren land.

The rumour was that the priest had brought back seeds of the lamtoro in his cassock, had not declared them to the authorities and had set up some seedbeds for them back in NTT. They had done very well, had grown beyond expectations, and were even in some places considered a weed that needed to be controlled.

The local people of NTT were hugely impressed with lamtoro agung. It did not need any elaborate planning protocols and fruited with many seeds after 18 months. There was a great desire for the seeds and a number of early innovators set themselves up as seed producers and seed merchants. I remember visiting one well-set-up farmer in Timor whose house had furniture, a TV and a sound system. “Lamtoro seeds have produced all this,” he said, gesturing to his wealth and a relatively small plot of young trees with the sacks of seeds that he had harvested and was selling on to his neighbours.

Lamtorisasi (Indonesian for the process of spreading lamtoro) was a self-perpetuating process. Amazing claims that rivers had come back into flow, that rainfall had improved and that areas which had been brown were now green were repeated everywhere. There were plans for aerial scattering of seeds over the territories of NTT, although this never happened as far as I know. To a large extent this was indigenous development - Oxfam’s role, initially, was to organise learning visits between areas that had already planted the miracle trees and those that were late developers. It became accepted that animals would not thrive on 100% lanttoro, but that they would certainly improve on mixed grazing of lanttoro and grass.

Lanttoro was also a nitrogen-fixing plant with deep roots which brought back fertility to areas where erosion had scoured out the nutrients — and this produced a further use of the lanttoro: for contour terracing. If the lanttoro was planted densely on the contours, then it would make a small dam to hold back surface water flow, it would catch leaf and soil run-off to build up a fertile area uphill, and it would stop erosion and gullying.

Taking advantage of all these potential benefits of lanttoro required some further support work from Oxfam. The principal one was encouraging the making an A-frame level: i.e. three poles in the shape of the letter “A” with a plumb line dangling from the apex and a mark in the centre of the crosspiece. Fanners would carry the A-frame across the countryside, linking places of the same level as shown by the centred string, and then they would plant large numbers of seeds of lanttoro along the contour line, before the rainy season. In the rainy season the lanttoro would send down roots, anchor a line of plants along the contour, and catch water and vegetation run-off. Once the area behind the contour terracing had become established and fertilised by the nitrogen-fixing aspect of the lanttoro, fanners could plant a range of crops (maize, peppers, cassava, etc.) along the contours.

A final beneficial aspect of latntoro comes when the leaves are cut and pruned and laid on the soil around the terracing. The lanttoro vegetation is a green manure and helpful to maintain soil fertility.

Oxfam worked again with Yayasan Dian Desa, which also opened up an office in NTT, to encourage the use of lanttoro agung, to manufacture and use the A-frames, to set up contour terraces across the land, and to teach many simple agricultural techniques to drive benefit from the amazing latntoro agung.

What did I learn from the coalface?

Keep your ear to the ground about local innovations. What was most impressive about the benefits of lanttoro was that it could not

Ute far east of Indonesia, 1979—84 77 be monopolised or held back by some to the exclusion of others. Everyone could benefit without barriers to the use of the technology. One of the advantages of being an INGO, like Oxfam, was that it was able to subsidise its representative and core staff to search out and appreciate new ideas and new organisations. This in turn would lead to new programme possibilities. Another advantage was that, once the NGO had identified a good local CSO, it could keep supporting it, through the vagaries of donor funding, and invest in its institutional growth, helping with training, communications and organisational structures. Oxfam was good at this and has received many tributes from its local partner organisations that it stayed with them and helped them to grow.

It was also important to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the local government, which was invariably suspicious of the role of foreign organisations that claimed that their aid would help the country’s poor. The most extreme version of this was having to explain INGO politics to the Indonesian Government. Oxfam, at that time, had an Australian affiliate called CAA (Community Aid Abroad), which had taken a much more confrontational role vis-à-vis Indonesia (not surprisingly, since the Indonesian Army killed Australian journalists there). I had some delicate balancing to do to let the Indonesian authorities know that Oxfam UK was different from CAA, and that we were working through their retired Surgeon General of the Indonesian Army.

What were we thinking at the time?

News from East Timor was difficult to access and often came with a strong political spin from the political activist organisations in Australia, Ireland, UK, USA and different countries of Europe which were vehemently lobbying for East Timorese independence with their governments and the UN. What was clear, however, was that terrible things were being done to the population of East Timor, and this was subsequently revealed in published research.

van Klinken, Gerry. 2012. Death by Deprivation in East Timor 1975-1980. World Peace Foundation, Cambridge MA, USA.

Mounting a large relief effort in a country where Oxfam was not allowed to monitor was a gamble, but our trust in retired Surgeon General Suroyo and his co-retirees was, as far as we could find out, vindicated.

In respect of lanttoro agung, we were involved at the time in a breaking story in NTT province, and this was subsequently written up and became scientific orthodoxy.

Wirjodarmodjo, Hartono. 1983. Leucaena Leucocephala: The Indonesian experience. FAO, Rome, Italy.

Tacio, Henrylito D. 1993. Sloping agricultural land technology (SALT): how to farm hilly land without losing soil. Technical note 72. FAO, Rome, Italy.

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