Florentino Sarmento, by building a large number of self-managing economic development groups in previously war-torn East Timor, is allowing his society to reestablish local self-reliance, thereby gaining self-respect. Ultimately both are prerequisites to the restoration of trust and harmony, and to economic and social progress.
Florentino, born in 1951, was the son of a teacher. Both his grandmother and father also taught religion orally to an illiterate population. His parents sent him to a Dili-based seminary. After graduating, he became an elementary school teacher in 1969. Three years later he was drafted into the Portuguese army, serving from 1972 to 1975. Following the war, the Indonesian government, impressed by his performance, sent him to the Catholic teachers training college in Yogyakarta, Sanata Dharma, where he studied the English language. With this degree he became one of the first indigenous East Timor university graduates. Florentino was an active student, participating in the school choir and on the editorial staff of the college's magazine, Dialogue, and was also a member of the basketball team. After graduation, he was hired as a cook serving a Catholic Relief Services development team. From this modest initial vantage point, he observed, developed his ideas, later took over direction of the project, and now has the hope of restoring Timorese society's integrity and vitality.
After years of Portuguese colonization and the tumultuous war that followed, the Indonesian government gained control of East Timor in 1976. Shortly thereafter Florentino, at 25, went to study in Yogyakarta for four years. One of the few university-educated citizens on the island, he eventually rose to become the director of its chief rural development Private Volunteer Organization (PVO.) In 1983, Florentino joined a local development organization, ETADEP, as a cook. In 1987, he became its director, and since then, he has systematically guided the PVO to becoming a major social force on the island. Florentino's idea operates on several levels at once. Each gains strength from the other, subtly but powerfully. The least obvious level is probably the most important: Florentino is providing Timorese society an outlet through which it and its indigenous, even traditional leadership can once again find a voice and assume control over a significant part of the community's life and future. The war and its bitter aftermath disrupted far more than farm production. Even now community heads are government appointees rather than the traditional Liurai elected by each group's dato class. Distrust and fear linger. The multiplying number of small local credit or cooperative groups he has created, and the several specialist, larger scale PVOs he is spinning off that serve these smaller groups, provide an arena wide open to local leadership. It is not political, but it is centrally important to people's lives. It is an expanding and very serious area of opportunity besides the state and the church, where broad parts of indigenous Timor can come back to life. This process restores self-confidence and helps people learn and practice critically important organizing, collaborating, and leadership skills. This confidence and those skills are critical to development. Florentino's process, moreover, succeeds in releasing these powerful energies in ways the state and church perceive in very positive lights. The work is central to the island's economic success and is antagonistic to no one. With each constructive step these groups take, they are building the trust between groups that is the core of the final unifying peace the country needs. By tapping this special energy, Florentino gives extraordinary push to the other levels of his work. There are already 56 local groups involved, and the number is growing rapidly. They, and the elan they bring, provide a strong, popularly routed base for most of the rest of the work. A major further goal for Florentino is helping thousands of small farmers learn to farm in environmentally sustainable ways, very much in contrast to the island's history of slash and burn, and also in contrast to the government's advocacy of techniques developed in other islands that all too often turn out not to fit this relatively vulnerable region. Florentino's final goal is to build a strong group of PVOs on Timor. ETADEP has grown into a large multi-service citizen organization (CO). Florentino believes that the people's voice on the island will be stronger if the work of this CO is decentralized. Florentino is encouraging and training four or five individuals to become managers of smaller, autonomous, single-focused PVOs. Each step in this direction strengthens democracy.
East Timor still suffers deeply from both the failure of the Portuguese to press development and the recent war. Only 3,500 of the population of 700,000 have a high school education. Most of the children drop out of school well before they reach junior high school. Government responses have often been clumsy. Ideas from far away become programs that do not fit either with the local cultural and social traditions or with economic realities. The program Florentino joined in 1983 exemplified this sort of disfunction. The U.S. Agency for International Development paid it to buy tractors and various modern technologies, but they proved too expensive to use and maintain. These sorts of government programs typically operate on a macro scale, using modern technology and emphasizing gross output, not sustainability. The East Timorese were not prepared to cope with this kind of development program. Additionally, Timor's farmers were creating problems of their own. For example, they were practicing shifting agriculture in the highlands without any knowledge of land conservation. The result was widespread environmental destruction. Deforestation, soil erosion, and flooding were growing all over the island. Their slow start in development, very much aggravated by the years of social disorder on the island, has left the East Timorese in a very weak bargaining position vis-a-vis better organized, more savvy outsiders. The government's new policy to speed the development in east Indonesia could easily lead to outsiders taking economic control of the island's tempting resources, changing the islanders into a cheap labor pool. Big investors are attracted by the rich resource base on the island, and many have already come to explore the investment possibilities. To avoid becoming even more marginalized, the East Timorese must organize and take charge of their own resources.
Building out from his organizational base, ETADEP, Florentino seeks to create hundreds of local community savings, credit, and development groups run by local farmers and served by at least five PVOs that will provide specialized backup, including the ability to operate at scale. He hopes this self-governing structure will help Timorese society learn to farm and market more successfully and sustainably, rebuild its self-confidence and ability to organize, and provide it with key financial, planning, and marketing capacities. One of Florentino's priorities has then had to be ensuring the survival and economic stability of his base. He took a big step toward ETADEP's long-term solvency when, with great effort, he persuaded the donors to allow him to sell the tractors and other equipment the farmers could not afford to maintain and then to use the proceeds to create an endowment to help pay for the group's work. The group's most important long-term strength, however, is its accumulating skill at fostering needed social and agricultural change and its consequent growing credibility. Florentino's several-dimensioned strategy adds underpinning coherence and persuasive impact. Florentino's second organizational objective has been to stimulate local farmers to create hundreds of local groups and, through them, to spread new and more appropriate farming techniques collectively to organize needed backups, be they for credit or marketing. Although he hopes ETADEP can trigger hundreds of such groups, ultimately he knows that there will have to be a good many other organizations taking on this organizing work if the bulk of Timor's farmers are to be reached. Partly for this reason, and partly because he feels that building a much richer field of Timorese private-citizen-based organizations is in itself important, Florentino has been training a number of leaders within ETADEP. He plans eventually to have these leaders take parts of ETADEP and create new independent organizations. ETADEP (and its likely successors) reinforces and serves as well as stimulates these grassroots farmers' organizations. It provides, for example, training programs in modern, sustainable agriculture_introducing small-scale irrigation systems, land conservation, the importance of a clean drinking water supply, and approaches to social forestry and dry-land agriculture techniques, to name a few. Florentino is now in the process of adding new support services for the local farmers' groups. He is building a central credit facility from which local groups can borrow when they have more loans they want to make to members than they have available in accumulated savings. He is also putting in place a new insurance program.