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Birthplace of the coffee resistance


WHEN the coffee rust disease Hemileia Vastatrix attacked a plantation 840m above sea level in the remote Portuguese outpost of Timor Leste 100 years ago, one tree – a hybrid offshoot alliance of arabica and robusta – was found miraculously untouched. Today, more than 90 per cent of rust-resistant coffee varieties cultivated around the world owe their existence to this hardy, naturally-occuring survivor – the Hibrido de Timor.


ADB Timor Leste Coffee plant The Asian Development Bank's David Freedman (left) and Timorese grower onsite at a plantation.

Coffee rust disease attacked in almost every part of the world where Arabica was cultivated. But through the resistance manifested in Hibrido de Timor (immunity to 23 physiological races of the disease!), a defence had been found.


The discovery of the plant led to the Centre for the Investigation of Coffee Rust (CIFC) being established in 1955 in Portugal and supported by the governments of Portugal and the USA.


The CIFC established clones and offshoots of the original plant from its seeds, and through the 1960s, sent the seeds of these plants to far-flung coffee-growing countries such as Kenya and Tanzania in the Africas; Colombia and Brazil in the Americas; and, even to Asian countries such as India.


According to a 2013 report by the agriculture departments of the Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosae and The University of Evora investigating origins of Hibrido de Timor: “The general characteristic of the descendants of the original plant is to have a phenotype of Arabica, being predominant the tetraploid forms with 44 chromosomes, presenting the product appreciable organoleptic qualities, remarkable chemical similarity with Arabic, in exports has been commercially treated as Arabica and marked resistance to Hemileia Vastatrix.” 

Hibrido de Timor

Researchers posing with the original Hibrido de Timor (behind wire mesh).

As testimony to the Hibrido de Timor’s tough-as-nails origins, the university researchers – Vicente de Paulo Correia, Carlos da Conceicao de Deus, Marcal Gusmao, Pedro Damiao de Sousa Henriques and Pedro Nogueira – were able to find the original plant amazingly still alive in the Mata Nova coffee highlands of Timor Leste.


The phantom menace


Today, Timor Leste is a young country which has relied on a fast-depleting reserve of petroleum since gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002. Coffee could once again be a champion when petroleum runs out, and the international coffee community has a part to play in making it so.


According to the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) David Freedman (above left): “While coffee could never replace the oil & gas industry’s revenues, it is an industry that can provide many jobs. Around one quarter of all households grow coffee and many of these people live below or close to the poverty line. Increasing  productivity and improving the quality of coffee grown in Timor-Leste can make a big difference to overall household income.”


The ADB is actively working in the country with NGOs and industry leaders to effect growth. Community, Fair-trade and Sustainabilty – the chance to turn these buzzwords into actionable reality at every level of the coffee value chain exists today in Timor Leste. The crop is not new to the country, but a specialty-approach to growing, processing and buying is.


Stakeholders, from farmers to processing co-ops, merchants and consolidators, were brought together for the second Festival Kafe Timor (FKT) in October 2017 to do that. The international participants included Dragonfly Coffee Roaster's Tamas Christman, Roast magazine's Connie Blumhardt, The Coffee Man movie director Jeff Hann, Raw Material and El Fenix's Matt Graylee,  Groundwork Coffee Co's Jeffrey Chean and Liberty Coffee's own Terence Tay.

Festival Kafe Timor Leste Judges Liberty Coffee Andrew Hetzel leads a cupping session during Festival Kafe Timor


Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Education Advisory Council chairman, Andrew Hetzel (second from right), said Timor Leste has plentiful natural advantages as a specialty-coffee origin.


“First, the people of Timor-Leste consume coffee, which is unusual at many origins, where coffee is seen exclusively as an export cash crop. This makes the communication of quality issues much easier than with those who do not drink coffee.


“Second, the topography and micro-climates are nothing short of spectacular...Much of the arabica in the country grows at 1,750m or higher, which gives the coffee a slow development time, preserving sugars and promoting the development of positive organic acids that give coffee brightness.


“Third, there is a long history of coffee farming in Timor-Leste, so the coffee plants are particularly well adapted to their environment. So much so, that the natural Hibrido de Timor crossbreed variety formed there spontaneously.”


In his private capacity as a coffee market, value chain, and international trade consultant, Hetzel has helped enough coffee companies to identify what else Timor Leste must accomplish to make a mark on the specialty scene.


“(They need to improve) infrastructure, basic farming skills (pruning, tree replacement, cherry selection), processing procedures (shorter fermentation, slower drying as parchment), systems of traceability and compensation for quality performance and export shipping.


“In some areas, land title is being resolved between Portuguese and Indonesian ownership claims.”


Liberty Coffee’s Terence Tay, who attended the FKT as an international judge, agreed, but noted these challenges also presented opportunities. He said: “Each of these shortcomings is an area in which coffee industry folks could lend their expertise to meaningful improvement, making an impact all through the value chain.”


And in all of this, like a lightsabre cutting a swathe through the mediocre, Hibrido de Timor remains a rallying champion.


In 2016 at the inaugural FKT, smallholder farmers cultivating the heirloom Hibrido varietal led the field in the country’s first national cup quality contest, with Tunufahi village in the Letefoho district of Ermera achieving the top score of 84.45 points. – By Pauline Tan, March 2018


In the our next instalment on Timor Leste, Liberty Coffee will discuss the roadblocks to be surmounted,and the strides which have been taken to make this a coffee origin to watch.