Subject: ABC: East Timor drought causes food crisis

East Timor drought causes food crisis

PM - Tuesday, 9 December , 2003 18:46:00

Reporter: Anne Barker

MARK COLVIN: In East Timor, thousands of people remain in the grip of an acute food shortage, and now face a bleak and hungry Christmas. A severe drought has left much of the country parched and barren, with some crops declared a complete failure. But although the long dry has now ended, the food crisis is unlikely to ease until at least March, as Anne Barker reports.

ANNE BARKER: For months now, thousands of East Timorese have been reduced to scavenging in the bush just to stay alive.

A severe drought for the past two years has devastated crops across a large swathe of the country, leaving up to one in six people on the edge of starvation. Many have been forced to eat wild leaves and roots to survive.

But while the drought has now broken, the food crisis is far from over. Jack de Groot is the national director of the relief agency, Caritas Australia. He's just returned from East Timor, where he learnt first-hand of the scale of the crisis.

JACK DE GROOT: There is quite a reality now in place of a serious food emergency, and some of that could have seen by the fact that farmers along the roadside were harvesting sago and taking that to their villages.

Sago is very low in nutrition, but certainly does fill up the stomach. It's not a general crop that the East Timorese population would be eating except in times when there's a food shortage.

And I suppose the most obvious other sign of food shortage was the coming to town of cattle herders to sell cattle, to sell the only assets they've got because of their food shortage.

And whilst the drought has now broken to some extent, the people will not have any of their own ability to provide food until April, and so the deliveries of food from now through to March are crucial.

ANNE BARKER: So what are people doing for food?

JACK DE GROOT: Well, what they are doing is they're actually buying in Dili, so farmers are catching the barge from Acusi into Dili and selling their cattle. Now that's a pretty rare exercise for them to be doing because there is nothing available in the markets there, and nothing from the fields. And they are eating these sorts of wild crops, or non-traditional food crops such as sago.

ANNE BARKER: If the drought has now broken, why are you predicting this food crisis will last until April?

JACK DE GROOT: Because the traditional planting times and harvest, they can only start planting when the weather's got underway. That's still a little time away. They haven't been able to plant prior to this because of drought, and it won't be harvest until April. So there is no naturally grown food stocks by the community available until April. So it is a bad situation now.

MARK COLVIN: Jack de Groot, national director of the relief organisation, Caritas Australia, with Anne Barker.

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