When Etsuo Hashiguchi arrived in Timor-Leste in 2004, conditions were so turbulent. It was almost impossible to find anyone capable of trying to maintain the country’s crumbling road infrastructure.
Teaching new heavy equipment drivers.
"We virtually invited people off the street to come and train as operators or heavy road building equipment—tractors and graders," he recalled. "We couldn’t even offer them a salary. They were just volunteers, but we did tell them that future prospects would be good."
Timor-Leste had just undergone years of chaos and upheaval including a bitter struggle for independence during which much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed.
Roads and bridges are the main arteries of any nation’s economic backbone and Timor’s already fragile network faced an uncertain future. The system had been damaged, experts had fled and there was no money to maintain or revive the road system.
The United Nations and other international donors stepped in to provide immediate help in the new millennium. In 2005 JICA began a three-year project.
"We did not come here to construct new roads," explained Koji Naito, who was seconded from the Nippon Koei Company in Japan to become the project team leader. Instead, the project is intended to train a core group of Timorese experts to maintain the entire network.
In effect, that means everything from teaching people how to drive bulldozers and grading machines, teaching mechanics how to maintain them, and also creating a comprehensive database allowing officials for the first time to draw up long-term budgeting and maintenance programs for Timor’s roads.
It is a daunting task. The country’s few main highways are in reasonable condition. But other roads have received little maintenance for 25 years. And secondary roads in the mountainous interior, in the words of one official, are 'catastrophic' - washed away in the rainy season and impassable even for four-wheel drive vehicles.
Japanese expert Etsuo Hashiguchi instructs new mechanics.
After Indonesia withdrew from Timor, new headaches arose with some Timorese landowners claiming old property which included the highways themselves. Many of those claims are unresolved.
Still, Etsuo Hashiguchi, from the Goto Islands near Nagasaki, is reasonably encouraged. And he has had a lifelong experience from which to judge, spending several decades as a JICA volunteer, consultant and expert in Central Africa and Latin America. "The Timorese are very eager and willing to learn," he said as he taught a group of mechanics. "People for the last few years have wanted to train and work despite the many difficulties."
Which still do persist. This particular group of mechanics undergoing instruction, for instance, had not been paid for three months even though their $100 a month salaries were extremely modest.
Joanico Goncalves, the director of the government’s Institute of Equipment Management, is in no doubt about the value of the JICA’s program despite its uneven progress.
"Many donors have given us equipment, but no technical support," he said. "For the next several years, this support will be vital to sustain our national economic development. Without this support, nothing would be happening in this country."