Timor-Leste Makes Headway – Slowly

Bendita Ramos grimaced as she pointed over the rickety roadside fence in the Timorese hamlet of Kaitehu. On the other side was a field of bedraggled-looking maize plants, some stooped as if sheltering from the steady drizzle falling from the slate sky above.

“The corn we plant is damaged because of the long dry season and then the heavy rain,” the mother of five explained. She walks several kilometers into the mist-enshrouded hills to harvest bitter bean, a poisonous legume that has to be boiled seven or eight times before it can be eaten.

But with increased government spending and what in recent years has been a high growth economy, backed by a now US$16.5 billion Petroleum Fund, Timor-Leste is these days better able to protect its people against going hungry, at least compared with 2006. Infrastructure is slowly improving. Not far over Ramos’s fence, west along the road, which links Timor-Leste’s capital Dili with the nearby town of Liquica, diggers hacked at the ground and workmen took turns at allowing single lanes of traffic pass around the roadworks, first one way, then the other.

For Xanana Gusmao, the independence hero who stood down voluntarily as prime minister in February fixing Timor-Leste’s sinuous, pockmarked roads was one step on the way to helping his 13 year old country climb out of poverty. In its 2015 report on the country, the World Bank said that infant and child mortality rates have nearly halved, school enrollment and access to electricity have doubled, economic growth is surpassing regional neighbors and citizen participation is increasing.

“Timor-Leste has been drawing down money from the Petroleum Fund and channeling it through the budget to meet pressing needs,” said Bolormaa Amgaabazar, the World Bank’s representative in Timor-Leste. However, with crude prices falling by 45 percent in a year and continuing flat, that has amplified an already-significant risk to Timor-Leste’s long term fiscal sustainability, with the hydrocarbons that make up almost all of state spending likely to run out in under a decade. No surprise, then, that Gusmao's successor as Prime Minister, Dr. Rui Araujo, has said that developing the non-oil economy will be a major challenge for his government.

Little of the rising prosperity has filtered own to Bendita Ramos, beyond the better road outside her fence. Escaping hardship seems far-fetched, given that she must hike across hills to forage for the wild plants she needs to supplement her family’s diet. “Two hours walk, it grows there,” she said, pointing back over her shoulder and beyond her pink-painted two-room house toward the hills behind. Eating wild plants – beans, wild yams and sago palm – is especially commonplace during lean years when the dry season lasts longer than the May- November usual. This year may be more precarious than usual, with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology having announced a full-on El Niño warned of widespread drought and warmer temperatures across the region. The vast archipelago chain of which Timor Leste is a part is usually harder hit than other regions.

‘The whole system of farming here is that you wait for [the ground] to dry, you burn it, and you plant into the soil,” said Rob Williams, a researcher at Seeds of Life, a research organization under Timor-Leste’s Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries. If the weather changes, the system is undermined, meaning people can go hungry – or must forage for wild food.

Along with colleagues at Seeds of Life, Williams authored a research paper published in the Food Security journal in December 2014. Based on various Seeds of Life studies carried out across the county since the mid 2000’s, the article examined the prevalence of foraging for wild food in Timor-Leste.

But foraging is not just an emergency measure for rural Timorese – it is a regular means of supplementing meager diets.

“Some 80 to 90 percent of rural households would rely on food from the bush, as we say in Australia,” Williams said. In contrast to Australia, where people can look for wild food as a novelty supplement, many in Timor-Leste have no choice but to forage.

“Here it’s a survival mechanism,” Williams said.

Timor-Leste was among the lowest-ranked countries in the 2014 Global Hunger Index, a survey of nutrition standards in 76 counties published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The Dili government disputed the findings, but researchers elsewhere say that inadequate diet remains a matter of serious concern in Timor-Leste.

“Perhaps one of Timor-Leste’s most serious socioeconomic concerns is malnutrition,” said the London-based Overseas Development Institute [ODI] in After the Buffaloes Clash, a recent report on Timor-Leste.

Bendita Ramos remembered that in 2006, it was not just adverse weather that interrupted farming: Timor-Leste saw fighting between factions in the army and police, driving 150,000 people into refugee camps and disrupting livelihoods. “That year especially we ate a lot of elephant yam and wild bean,” she recalled.

Nonetheless, since 2006, hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to veterans of Timor-Leste’s independence struggle against Indonesia has meant more money in circulation in the countryside than in the past.

“Families have more access to cash and the government has made a big effort to get rice, some of it imported, to the districts,” said Rob Williams.

A different version of this appeared in The Edge Review – www.theedgereview.com. Reprinted with permission.