Florentino D. Sarmento

Ashoka Fellow
,
Fellow Since 1991
CRS

Citation

This profile was prepared when Florentino D. Sarmento was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991.
The New Idea
After years of Portuguese colonization and the tumultuous war that followed, the Indonesian government gained control of East Timor in 1976. Shortly thereafter Florentino, at 25, went to study in Yogyakarta for four years. One of the few university-educated citizens on the island, he eventually rose to become the director of its chief rural development Private Volunteer Organization (PVO.)

In 1983, Florentino joined a local development organization, ETADEP, as a cook. In 1987, he became its director, and since then, he has systematically guided the PVO to becoming a major social force on the island.

Florentino's idea operates on several levels at once. Each gains strength from the other, subtly but powerfully. The least obvious level is probably the most important: Florentino is providing Timorese society an outlet through which it and its indigenous, even traditional leadership can once again find a voice and assume control over a significant part of the community's life and future.

The war and its bitter aftermath disrupted far more than farm production. Even now community heads are government appointees rather than the traditional Liurai elected by each group's dato class. Distrust and fear linger.

The multiplying number of small local credit or cooperative groups he has created, and the several specialist, larger scale PVOs he is spinning off that serve these smaller groups, provide an arena wide open to local leadership. It is not political, but it is centrally important to people's lives. It is an expanding and very serious area of opportunity besides the state and the church, where broad parts of indigenous Timor can come back to life. This process restores self-confidence and helps people learn and practice critically important organizing, collaborating, and leadership skills. This confidence and those skills are critical to development. Florentino's process, moreover, succeeds in releasing these powerful energies in ways the state and church perceive in very positive lights. The work is central to the island's economic success and is antagonistic to no one. With each constructive step these groups take, they are building the trust between groups that is the core of the final unifying peace the country needs.

By tapping this special energy, Florentino gives extraordinary push to the other levels of his work. There are already 56 local groups involved, and the number is growing rapidly. They, and the elan they bring, provide a strong, popularly routed base for most of the rest of the work. A major further goal for Florentino is helping thousands of small farmers learn to farm in environmentally sustainable ways, very much in contrast to the island's history of slash and burn, and also in contrast to the government's advocacy of techniques developed in other islands that all too often turn out not to fit this relatively vulnerable region.

Florentino's final goal is to build a strong group of PVOs on Timor. ETADEP has grown into a large multi-service citizen organization (CO). Florentino believes that the people's voice on the island will be stronger if the work of this CO is decentralized. Florentino is encouraging and training four or five individuals to become managers of smaller, autonomous, single-focused PVOs. Each step in this direction strengthens democracy.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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