Subject: abc: Timor food crisis

Timor food crisis By Stephen Skinner
abc country hour, Darwin

Tuesday, 20/03/2007

Timorese people are starving on our doorstep. That's the blunt report being received in Darwin by former Territory Government agricultural scientist Rob Wesley-Smith, who's better known as a long-time East Timor activist.

There's a chronic shortage of rice in East Timor at the moment, and that's one of the major reasons behind recent riots and the ongoing looting of warehouses.

Rob Wesley-Smith is in almost daily contact with people in East Timor, and has made countless visits over the past 30 years. Combine that with a couple of decades as a Top End tropical ag scientist - including rice research at Tortilla flats near Adelaide River - and Wesley-Smith knows what he's talking about when it comes to food security in East Timor.

"There's reports coming in from all over the country that people are hungry. It is the normal hunger season that they have every year but on top of that the rains are late this year, the first corn crop that was planted died off, and people are so disrupted with their lives at the moment that they're not growing the food that they need, so all these factors compound on each other and people are starving. For example at Atauro I heard the other day, one meal every two days, and no work that requires the expenditure of energy."

Rob Wesley-Smith says the East Timorese became dependant on rice during the long Indonesian occupation, to the point where the country can't grow enough rice to feed itself -- about half the supply has to be imported each year. He says that dependence has become worse since the elections mayhem eight years ago.

"There's developed with the UN being there a bit of a cargo cult mentality. The people got liberated from an oppressive regime and they expect that the world must come in and help them, and so far that's happened. There's always been the World Food Program or the Government to provide food.

"There must be more emphasis on people growing their own food. Everyone must have a kitchen garden or a pot plant at home where they grow some herbs or something like that, and that education is not there. Even in Indonesian times they had lots of extension officers in all the districts, now there's almost none."

A team of experts from the United Nations has just arrived in East Timor to do a two-week assessment of the latest rice and maize crops. Country director for the World Food Program is Egyptian-Canadian Tarek Elguindi, and he already knows the news will be bad.

He says the food shortage crisis has been compounded by difficulty in importing rice. For example Indonesia and the Philippines have been competing for limited supplies in Asia; Australia's rice crop has been hit by the drought; and it's been dangerous, slow and uneconomic for cargo ships to unload at Dili's port.

Tarek Elguindi says one positive thing has been that with the help of the Australian Government, for the past couple of years pregnant women and young children have been receiving priority help under a food safety net program.

In this report: Rob Wesley-Smith, agricultural scientist and East Timor activist; Tarek Elguindi, East Timor country director, World Food Program.

see also Douglas Kammen and S.W. Hayati: Crisis and Rice in East Timor

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