It's amazing that only a little over an hour from Darwin we have one of the world's five poorest countries - Timor Leste - about which I, like many Australians, know all too little. So it was a wonderful honour to be invited to address the special colloquium at UNTL in celebration of the ninth anniversay of Timor Leste independence. It was a curious day and a mix of contrasts. Among the speakers were President Ramos Horte, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, opposition leader Mari Alkatiri, the current and former Rectors of the University, and the Heads of the Education, Health and Foreign Affairs ministries, along with two academics from CDU - myself and political scientist Dr Dennis Shoesmith. Unlike me, Dennis has had long experience in Timor Leste and is well known to the administration, having worked within the Foreign Ministry under Ramos Horte training senior officials in the years immediately after independence. A recurring theme throughout the day was the question of the national language, which seems to this bemused outsider to be unfinished business. It was a long session with a relaxed approach by session moderators in keeping speakers to time, with the notable exception of the politicians. We ended the day in darkness, two hours behind schedule at 7pm.
The field trip to Manatoto with Professor Bob Wasson and Dr Renkang Peng took us along a road that was rough and dangerous but also afforded some beautiful scenery. Yet amidst the beautiful landscapes and friendly people were also scenes of abject poverty and a glaring lack of infrastructure, with obvious issues of food security and seasonal hunger. Peng is developing a very interesting project with colleagues from the TL Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to develop a sustainable cashew industry. Having a new perennial crop would potentially diversify farming systems, income streams and add a valuable source of nutrition for rural communities in Timor-Leste. After a long journey we were within a couple of kilometres of Peng's trial plantations when we were stopped in our tracks by a torrential downpour, and given the state of the narrow roads we were reluctant to risk getting stuck. The potential of Timor Leste is obviously immense. What it needs now are the governance frameworks to ensure that the wealth from oil and gas revenues does make it to education, health and agriculture systems, and to key infrastructure like roads, the power grid, food processing and refrigeration facilities. The poignancy was underlined when, after a lofty address by the education minister about the aspirations for the education system, the first question was from a university student who inquired as to when they might expect to have chairs and desks. Here at CDU, and especially in RIEL, we already have well-established partnerships with Timor-Leste. There is enormous potential to make a positive difference in this beautiful country right on our doorstep.