Story Behind Goulala: Coffee Grown by Guerrilla Heroes

My trip to Timor was planned as a follow up to check the progress of the first harvest under new development lines. I set off with excited apprehension as the Timor plans had only just unfolded a week prior, although many years in the making. This being my first origin trip working for MTC Sucafina, in hindsight it makes all previous origin trips I did as a roaster seem like coffee tourism.

My first stop is the dry mill in Railaco. It is a relatively easy drive on somewhat maintained roads that wind up the mountain with views of the ocean only briefly being interrupted by the occasional roadside store selling local wine, phone credit and firewood.

The following morning I meet my host, Señor Domingos Sarmento, my travel guide for the next few days.

He is a wonderful human being standing less than five feet tall, with one of the warmest smiles you are likely to come across, in stark contrast to what I expected given his life story.

To describe him as a local hero is an understatement. Everywhere we go people stop us to shake or kiss his hand.

Manuel da Costa Silva and Señor Domingos Sarmento at coffee wet mill

Señor Domingos was a General in the Resistance Army. He spent many years forced into the jungle by the Indonesian invasion, commanding troops in guerrilla warfare while being outnumbered by 500 to 1.

He became the Minister of Justice and fought for recognition for Timor Leste through international exposure long after the troops left.

I found myself trying to do the maths on how this man could have fitted so many experiences into his 60 odd years of living.

The next leg of the trip was to take me a further 35 km into the mountains to Haupo, the site of the wet mill construction. The road from Railaco to Haupo is unpaved and tough.

Coffee trees lined the road and I understood in an instance why Timor coffee is marketed as “Wild Timor” by the larger players in the industry. The trees are tall and scraggly and look like they have long since been picked, and never pruned.

The journey gets exponentially more tedious as the roads turned from gravel, to dirt, to dust.

On many occasions the 4WD is shifted into low range and the brilliant red dust is so fine that it managed to come in through every seal in the vehicle.

After 3 hours we arrive at our destination. Halfway up the mountain with views overlooking the valley hundreds of meters below.

The air is noticeably cooler as we walk around the wet mill site and discuss everything from coffee, to world travels, history and politics while kids play soccer and the sun sets behind the mountains above.

East Timor Hybrid coffee plantations

Señor Domingos is responsible for sourcing cherry and parchment from the Letefoho region. His family compound, three stick houses with corrugated iron roofs facing each other with a common forecourt, acts as a local collection come sorting station which is a hive of activity.

Families bring parchment samples for evaluation and invite us to come see their coffee.

The farms in the area are mostly small and family run. The coffee is processed using buckets for fermentation and raised African drying beds.

This equipment had been distributed by MTC many years before and families were proud to show off the higher quality parchment, achieved by drying on the beds, that was being offered to me.

As we travel into Letefoho we meet Manuel da Costa Silva, another charming character and local hero who fought alongside Señor Domingos. He is a scrawny character whose face reveals a life story.

He is tough and proud and oozes a sense of accomplishment. He travels ahead of us on his dirt bike, stopping every 15 minutes for a cigarette while waiting for the 4wd to catch up.

Manuel has a coffee farm and was excited to show off every aspect of it to me. His coffee is all shade grown, meticulously maintained and in excellent condition.

He insists I take photos of everything and seems to be directing a coffee photographic brochure production. He takes a lot of pride in not only his coffee but also the coffee of everyone in his area.

Manuel da Costa Silva coffee farm

As we travelled further up the mountains we stopped at a number of farms and eventually came to our final destination. A house is buzzing with about 40 people waiting for us. We had stopped for coffee and a bite to eat and to pay the farmers.

They had all come to get paid in person as Manuel and Señor Domingos insisted that each family gets paid directly. It was a gratifying experience paying farming families in cash only 48 hours after the coffee had been collected. They explained that through the previous channels there was a two to five month wait for payment.

With the sun starting to drop, we make our way back down the mountain to Railaco, a long and tedious journey from close to the summit of the Timor Highlands.

Along the way Señor Domingos tells stories of his time fighting in the jungle. He is reminded of them as we drive past sites which he had occupied in another time of his life and for different reasons. It is hard not to draw conclusions of accomplishment when you compare the same place over 30 years.

He has a sense of immense pride as he tells these stories, acknowledging it was not for nothing.

He tells me life is good and the future is bright. We discuss the story he wants his coffee to tell and he replies “just this”.

Words and photography by Jason Joffe. 

If you want to learn more about East Timor, read our interview with Jason.

We’ve also prepared a short story about our newest bean Goulala.


Jason Joffee MTC Group

Jason Joffe

Jason is a green coffee trader with Australian specialty coffee trader MTC Sucafina. He’s been in coffee for over 18 years, with 15 of those as a specialty roaster in Brisbane and a few years consulting. MTC is committed to work closely with farmers in origins by providing them with technical support and donating equipment. Their goal is to improve coffees at the farm gate while positively changing farmer livelihoods.