In a country where most people grow just enough rice and corn to slake their hunger, Jose Madeira Ximenes never consumed any of his crop.

Every September, he would put it in bags and haul it--about 700 pounds worth--to this small town in the steep hills of central East Timor, where he would sell it to exporters. Months later, it would appear in American and European gourmet shops and cafes as high-priced, organically grown Arabica coffee beans.

But this year, Ximenes, 23, never had a chance to start his harvest. Pursued by local militia groups because he campaigned for East Timor's independence from Indonesia, Ximenes went into hiding in April, returning only recently to find his plants stripped of beans, presumably stolen by pro-Indonesian militiamen.

Cash-strapped and hungry, Ximenes and many of his neighbors who have suffered similar crop losses are moving back to subsistence farming. They recently planted corn on their coffee plantations, hoping for a first harvest in three to four months. "Now the focus is on corn, not coffee," said Eduardo de Dues Barreto, local leader of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, the political arm of a pro-independence insurgency that fought Indonesian rule for two decades.

That shift highlights the challenges East Timor faces as it seeks to recover from widespread destruction caused by the militia groups after the Aug. 30 independence referendum and become an economically independent nation. Coffee is the biggest export--valued last year at $30 million in a total economy that generated only $130 million--but this year, more than half the crop never made it to market. And the subsequent emphasis on other crops could hinder efforts to expand and promote production of Timorese coffee, agricultural specialists say.

Other economic development dreams also have been dashed by the recent militia violence. East Timor has pristine beaches and scenic hillside towns, but plans to promote tourism have been shelved since there is little electrical, water or telephone service and more than 75 percent of commercial buildings have been burned out or demolished.

"It's going to take a long time before people will come to East Timor for a holiday," said a Western diplomat who has surveyed the devastation here.

Another of East Timor's assets is the Timor Gap, a stretch of seabed between here and Australia that is rich in natural gas. But the gas deposits are so deep beneath the ocean floor that analysts question whether extensive drilling in the area is worth the investment.

International development specialists expect that this new country, which will be administered by the United Nations for the next two to three years, will be heavily reliant on foreign aid and loans, particularly to finance reconstruction. When East Timor was a province of Indonesia, local tax revenue covered only 15 percent of the cost of public services; the government in Jakarta paid the rest, according to the World Bank.

"There's not much of an economy to speak of here," said a U.N. official. "They're going to need help for a long time."

The United Nations plans to appeal to member countries Wednesday to pay for about $180 million in preliminary humanitarian assistance. Later this week, a delegation from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are scheduled to arrive in Dili, East Timor's capital, to begin discussions with U.N. officials and local leaders about financial assistance aimed at longer-term reconstruction projects.

Economists and development experts say the most promising business enterprise here is the production of organic coffee beans, an activity that began accidentally, because the East Timorese were too poor to afford fertilizers and pesticides for their crops. Sales of the beans have boomed recently, growing from 5,000 tons in 1995 to more than 10,000 tons last year.

In Ermera, 20 miles southwest of Dili, the importance of coffee production is not lost on Barreto and other local leaders. But these days, he said, townsfolk have more pressing problems.

"We are just out from a very, very bad time," said Barreto, cradling his head in his hands. "We have lost everything we had--our homes, our clothes--and right now, we are starving."

Relief organizations have been delivering rice to the town, but Barreto said that people here want to become self-sufficient before they think about coffee. Barreto, who has commandeered the town's gutted police station as his office, said people will go back to their coffee crops "when we are not starving."

CAPTION: Two men in Dili, the East Timorese capital, use materials they found to try to rebuild their home, which was virtually destroyed in militia violence.