Starving the virus while feeding the people: Timor-Leste’s COVID-19 challenge

Vegetable farmers in in Maubisse, Timor-Leste, growing seedlings in a greenhouse. (ILO/Flickr)

Timor-Leste’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a mixed bag.

On the plus side, it has been successful in keeping the virus from spreading. The political class, despite their addiction to drama, deserve credit for this. When the seriousness of the situation became apparent in March they took action – moving to restrict international travel, building testing capacity, providing income support to households and promoting social distancing, mask use and hand washing. Now as neighbouring Indonesia approaches 12,000 deaths, the toll in Timor-Leste remains exactly zero, with just 28 confirmed cases, none active, and no confirmed community transmission. There might have been some luck involved, but good management and timely leadership have also played a role.

And yet, in a way that recalls the failure to effectively tackle many basic development issues after the successful conclusion of the independence struggle, the impact of the global pandemic on the day-to-day economic and social life of our people has not received enough attention.

Perhaps the most pressing aspect of this problem is found in the status of the agricultural sector, which employs 60% of the population and provides 80% of the food supply.

Large-scale commercial agriculture has never taken off in Timor-Leste. The majority of the nation’s farming is done on semi-subsistence smallholdings using customary techniques, and even this is in decline – hardly good news if we’re thinking about the ability of rural households to earn, save and invest in their futures. Every year Timor-Leste consumes around 134,700 tons of rice, yet during 2018 and 2019 it only grew 40,275 tons.

The upshot of this is that Timor-Leste relies heavily on food imports, and is vulnerable to any global shock that might disrupt them. Coupled with the ways in which COVID-19 has restricted the ability of some farmers to go about their work and market their produce, it is easy to see why the country’s food supply is now in an alarming situation.

This situation is not unique to Timor. According to the World Food Program (WFP) more than 265 million people are at risk of hunger by the end of 2020. However, in Timor-Leste the risk feels particularly acute. During the mid-1970s more than 80,000 people died from the effects of famine caused by war, and to this day more than half of the population suffers from food insecurity.

Rural people know they are vulnerable. A farmer in Ermera municipality we spoke to said:

‘We produce many different sorts of vegetables but there is no supermarket that can buy our produce during the lockdown. At the local market we get just US $0.50 for a kilogram of tomatoes, whereas the larger stores in Dili would pay us US $1.50. During this state of emergency our income has been much less than usual.’

The plummeting price of produce and number of customers left this man, and many others like him, struggling to provide for their families. For Timorese farmers, who already must contend with large families, unpredictable weather and poor soils, this sort of income loss is likely to significantly damage their ability to sustain themselves and continue on with their productive activities. According to government sources in Timor-Leste, 40% of household income is spent on food, and of course all of these impacts are even more serious for already disadvantaged groups such as widows, the disabled and the elderly.

To give credit where it is due, the economic ramifications of COVID-19 have not been completely ignored by government. At the centre of its response has been an economic relief package, which includes a cash transfer of US $200 to each household with an income of less than US $500 per month, as well as electricity credits of US $15 per month. On a broader level, it has also committed to purchasing a three-month reserve of rice and making a US $5 million investment in domestic agricultural production.

Positive as these initiatives are, questions remain as to their adequacy. For larger families a subsidy of US $200 is unlikely to get them very far. Moreover, its distribution has been patchy – people have complained of the money not arriving on time, or at all.

‘We thank for the Government for this subsidy,’ one woman from Baucau told the media, ‘however unfortunately the subsidy arrived late.’ Many people, she said, short on food and money, had been forced to fall back on the assistance of their neighbours and local NGOs.

The announced investment of an extra US $5 million in the agriculture sector is also dubious. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), 81% of households are already experiencing food and income deficits due to the emergency. Exactly how the extra money will address this situation is not clear. The word tokenistic comes to mind. So does the term terlalu sedikit dan terlambat (too little, too late). In 2019, only 2% of the state budget was to agriculture and a shocking 1% to the water sector. Almost 50% of Timorese children under the age of five still suffer from stunting. The impact of the pandemic is threatening to turn what is already arguably a national emergency into a disaster.

As things stand now the situation is very clear. The Timorese government has to prioritise directly supporting the food security of our rural communities, and by extension the country as a whole. Keeping COVID-19 out only to see people going hungry in our hills will be a Pyrrhic victory at best. The agricultural sector is fragile because of decades of systemic underinvestment, and it won’t be fixed by throwing US $5 million at it. Going forward this also needs to be addressed. Timor-Leste may have won the war against COVID-19, for now, but if people starve, it could certainly still lose its peace.

This post is part of the #COVID-19 and the Pacific series. 

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Leonardo Soares

Leonardo Soares is a researcher at the National University of Timor-Leste.

Li-Li Chen

Dr Li-Li Chen is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, National University of Timor-Leste.

Michael Rose

Dr Mike Rose is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre.

3 Comments

  • Hi Helen,

    Thanks for your comments.

    They’re all good observations and I agree with most of them. Blogs at DevPol are limited to 1000 words, and our focus was more on the acute situation arising from COVID-19 rather than agricultural policy or food security more generally, so unfortunately we couldn’t get into all of the issues you raised as much as we would have like. That said, simply because it’s such an important topic, I do have a few (admittedly inexpert) comments.

    You’re right that TL’s malnutrition crisis is complex, in fact given that it’s dragged on for decades I wonder if malnutrition syndrome wouldn’t be a better term for it. I’d argue that it does have a lot to do with the agricultural sector which hasn’t been a priority, although as you point out, there’s a tricky set of factors related to education, the labour market and Timor-Leste’s social economy at play. Unfortunately, too often, they haven’t been a priority either.

    Your observation that debates over the best way to feed a country are ongoing is also spot on. I think what we were trying to express is that at the present time most Timorese farms are pretty vulnerable in a way that they wouldn’t had there been more development in the agricultural sector, whether that be commercial or otherwise. Then again, my direct exposure of this issue mostly involves hanging out with swidden farmers (atoin pahan) in Oecussi who were very much invested in what you might call ‘traditional’ methods, so I’m not totally across the latest regarding the promotion of new seed varieties and such.

    We’re in total agreement with your point that talk about ‘investing’ in agriculture is usually couched in terms of money (in this case not that much money), and that that is not enough. It’s not the main focus of the blog, but I hope it’s a point we make clearly enough. I also agree that gender is an indispensable aspect of the issue to consider. I’m sure you’re aware of the literature surrounding this.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminization_of_agriculture

    We do actually mention that Timor has a history of war induced famine, although regrettably we didn’t have a chance to get into much detail. Shifting food preferences over the 60s, 70s and 80s (which occurred throughout Indonesia in different ways) are certainly a worthy topic, however it is beyond the scope of our short blog on the impact of COVID-19.

    As you say it is a pity that home-economics and nutrition haven’t gotten more traction in the TL education system. Without a doubt if people, in particular younger people, had more knowledge about this type of thing TL would be less vulnerable to food insecurity caused by international shocks such as COVID-19.

    I reckon I’ve seen some local products on sale in TL kios (eggs, salt, certain brands of bottled water, coffee satchels and liquor among them), and there’s certainly plenty of local stuff at the wet markets. That said, as you would know most people have very little money so cheaper Indonesian products tend to get up. Economies of scale and all that + convenience, and it simply being what people are used to. But I take your point. All the more reason why state support for local manufacturing is important.

    The Fiji example sounds interesting. Was there ever a cooking show on TVTL? I could totally see that taking off.

    I agree that food security and sovereignty have never genuinely caught the attention of ‘elites’ in Dili. Lamentably the resource curse really is a thing. Let’s hope things will change. To be honest the future of TL probably depends on it.

  • This article unfortunately makes some astounding assumptions which confuse several different debates
    1. The assumption that Timor’s malnutrition crisis is predominantly a problem with the agriculture sector, ignores the complex intersectoral nature of the food crisis and the health, educational and cultural aspects of deciding what to eat.
    2. The assumption that if Timor had large scale ‘commercial’ farms productivity would be better and the country able to feed itself has not been proved anywhere. The FAO now recognizes that small scale family farming is the most productive sector all around the world. The Timorese government has never had a strategy for moving subsistence farmers into the small and medium enterprise sector using education, instead the secondary agricultural schools are largely attended by people hoping to go to university (where they often do a degree in agricultural science – thus repeating a large part of their studies, but they rarely go back and farm their land). Talk about ‘investing’ in agriculture is always about money, the real scarce resource is people who want to be farmers and who have the scientific and practical knowledge to rehabilitate the soil, build dams, conserve water etc.
    3. The article also neglects gender issues and gender roles in food production and food processing. Farming is actually a skilled occupation, requiring multiple skills in planning, design, management, keeping accounts, building, energy and water supply etc. it was largely de-skilled under the Indonesian occupation, and is now regarded as suitable for those who have have dropped out of school and who never learnt how to use computers, keep accounts or decide what to plant. Most of these are women.
    4. The article neglects historical events such as the 1980 famine which transformed Timorese eating habits and attitudes towards different foods resulting in the introduction of white rice as a staple wheres previously it had been root crops, and corn and some red rice. The large intake of white rice together with deficiencies in protein and micronutrients have led to an increase in diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.
    5. The article neglects education as a key driver in improving nutrition – two home economics teachers colleges were closed down in 2002 and since then there has been nothing taught about food in the schools until 2014 when a few Permaculture school gardens were introduced in primary schools. There is now (post COVID) an attempt to introduce a nutritional component into the school feeding program but until school kids are taught how to cook a tasty, nutritious meal (a la Stephanie Alexander), as was the plan under Permaculture, it will remain theoretical only.

    Timor-Leste now has food-based dietary guidelines (which like the Australian ones urge Timorese to eat five servings of fruit and vegetable each day, but no attempt seems to be made to use them to change habits, junk food such as packet noodles are still advertised in schools. Kiosks, the most accessible sector of retailing for most people, sell only Indonesian products and for some reason will not sell local crops (or even local salt, honey, coffee or eggs).
    Timor is such a contrast to Fiji which has a highly successful national nutrition committee which has cooking programs on TV and publishes recipe books, runs cooking classes etc. Most Timorese women are too afraid to cook with gas even though it is cheaper than the firewood which is sold to them illegally!
    Rural-urban migration is currently threatening to bring an end to Timor-Leste’s food production capacity, if Timor joins ASEAN it will enable large numbers of farmers who can’t get land in the Philippines and Indonesia to possibly come in and take their place but it will be a real blow to Timorese identity and possibly not improve nutrition.
    It is a tragedy that Timor-Leste has never had a really broadly based multidisciplinary policy debate on the whole issue of food security and food sovereignty, it largely goes on behind closed doors and not even in the universities.

    • These are really excellent points Helen. Thank you for your informed and detailed comment. Just chiming in to add that as we are a blog, we do have word limits that authors need to stick to, which could be why some of those points you raised were not in the piece, with the authors focusing more on the impact of COVID-19 on agriculture and food security. Highlighting that an already troubling and complex situation needs more than some ad-hoc money thrown at it, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, seems a fair point to raise.

      Do get in touch with us (devpolicy@anu.edu.au) if you would be interested in contributing a blog on other elements of the food security/ag policy etc, as it would be great to dive into this issue further. It seems to have been such a protracted issue in Timor-Leste where very little ground has been made. Particularly interesting to hear you compare it to Fiji, would be keen to hear more on this.

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