Nestled in the vast expanse of Southeast Asia, in surprisingly close proximity to Australia’s northern shores, lies a region that holds a special place in our hearts: Timor-Leste. It's likely that your relationship with the country hasn’t extended much further past sipping on delicious Timor coffee, but this small yet captivating nation possesses a remarkable tapestry of history, culture and natural wonders.
Often overshadowed by its more touristy neighbours - side note: it actually rates as one of the least visited countries in the world! - many Australians know little about the country that the Corner Store Network shares such a strong affinity with. So, from mesmerising marine life to political struggles, here are some of the most interesting facts about Timor-Leste.
1. The country of Timor-Leste makes up half of Timor Island
The island of Timor is one of 975 in an archipelago called Lessa Sunda Islands, which includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Singapore. Timor Island itself is split roughly down the middle with Timor-Leste taking up the eastern half and West Timor, which is part of Indonesia, taking up the western half. The word Timor actually means “east” in Malay, which reflects the island’s position at the eastern end of the archipelago.
2. You’ve probably been referring to it by the wrong name
Timor-Leste has been known by multiple names so let’s get to the bottom of it! During the period of Portuguese colonisation (16th to 20th century) the eastern part of Timor Island was called Portuguese Timor. After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, the country became known as Timor Timur, which translates to East Timor in Indonesian. This name was used up until 2002, when the country gained independence and adopted the name ‘Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste’ or simply ‘Timor-Leste’. Learn how to pronounce it correctly here!
So, while East Timor and Timor-Leste refer to the same geographical region, they have different historical and political contexts. East Timor is associated with the period of Indonesian occupation, while the use of Timor-Leste today reflects the country’s desire to establish a distinct national identity with emphasis on its sovereignty.
3. Timor-Leste is Asia’s youngest country, but it has a long history of occupation
As we just touched on, Timor-Leste’s history of occupation spans centuries, but let’s go back to the very beginning. Evidence of indigenous populations in Timor-Leste, believed to be descendants of First Nations Australians, dates all the way back to 42,000 years ago. In 1515, when the first Portuguese traders and missionaries reached the Timorese coast, the island was ruled by two animist kingdoms: Sorbian and Belos. The Portuguese continued to settle and in 1702, the eastern part of Timor Island was declared a Portuguese colony, while the western end at that time was controlled by the Dutch.
During World War II, the island was occupied from 1942 to 1945 by Japanese forces, who brought suffering and hardship to the local population. After Japan surrendered and the war ended, the Portuguese resumed control until the Carnation Revolution in Portugal allowed the self-determination of Portuguese colonies. In 1975, Timor-Leste declared independence and appointed its own Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this independence was short-lived.
Western Timor had since been integrated into Indonesian territory, and a mere nine days after declaring independence, Timor-Leste was invaded by Indonesia. This ensuing 24 years of occupation was marked by violence and resistance, causing immense suffering for the Timorese people. Devastatingly, around one third of the country’s population - more than 250,000 people - died during this period of genocide.
In 1999, the Timorese people voted for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum.This result led to a violent backlash from pro-Indonesian militias causing destruction and further loss of life. Finally in 2002, after world-wide protests, Timor-Leste gained full independence and became the first new nation of the 21st century.
4. Coffee is the county’s second biggest export
After petroleum products (oil and gas), coffee is the second largest export out of Timor-Leste. The country is renowned for its high quality arabica coffee which is grown in the mountains and exported to international markets, including to our specialty coffee roastery here in Melbourne. Coffee plays such a vital role in Timor-Leste’s agricultural sector that some 20% households get their income from the industry.
5. Timor-Leste has the second highest percentage of Catholics in the world
Second to only the Vatican (at 100%), roughly 97% of the population of Timor-Leste practice Catholicism. Interestingly, it’s one of only two predominantly Christian countries in Southeast Asia - the other being the Philippines. The influence of the Catholic Church is deep rooted, dating back to the period of Portuguese colonisation. It’s since played a significant role in shaping the cultural, social and educational aspects of Timorese society. For example, many Catholic traditions and festivals are followed throughout the country including baptisms, Christmas and Easter. It’s also worth noting that a small percentage of the population practice Islam or adhere to traditional indigenous beliefs.
6. Timor-Leste is home to some of the world’s most biodiverse waters
Located in the Coral Triangle, the waters around Timor-Leste boast around 600 reef-building corals, more than 2000 species of reef fish and six of the world’s seven marine turtle species. While large numbers of whales and dolphins also frequent the area, scientists have found that Atauro Island, just 24km north of capital Dili, sits in waters that have more species of reef fish than any other place on the planet! This makes it a popular site for diving tourism.
7. Timor-Leste is Australia’s third closest neighbour
After Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, Timor-Leste is the third closest country to Australia. Located to the north west of Darwin, at their closest points, Timor-Leste and Australia are roughly 680 km apart. For comparison, the distance between Melbourne and Sydney as the crow flies is 713 km! Australians visiting Timor-Leste depart from Darwin and fly into its capital, Dili. The flight time is roughly 1 hour and 25 minutes.
8. Timor-Leste has an extremely young population
With a median age of 20 (almost half that of Australia’s 38!) Timor-Leste has an exceptionally young population. While around 60% of the country is under 25, this median age has risen over the last few years thanks to improved health care and a reduced birth rate. Birth rate tends to have the greatest influence on a country’s median age; in nations where it's common for families to have multiple children it means that a large proportion of the population are young.
9. Timor-Leste experiences a ‘hungry season’ every year
Malnutrition is a serious concern in Timor-Leste, with a recent study finding 22% of the population are facing high levels of food insecurity. Aside from being a food-deficit country that imports 60% of its food requirements, communities face a yearly period of intense food scarcity, with limited access to nutritious food leaving families with little to eat. This “hungry season” takes place during the dry season, typically November to March, when food stocks from the previous harvest start to deplete while new crops are yet to be harvested. During this period, families experience food insecurity, malnutrition and increased vulnerability. The work being done at our food hubs in Timor-Leste aims to address these issues, preserving crops when in abundance to ensure nutritious food year round, particularly when harvests dry up.
If you would like to boost these preserving efforts to reduce food insecurity and malnutrition across Timor-Leste, you can donate here!