Market-imposed hunger adds to Timor misery

Market-imposed hunger adds to Timor misery 

By Ben Moxham

Asia Times


The East Timorese newspaper Suara Timor Lorosae reported on February 7 that at least 53 people had died of starvation in the village of Hatabuiliko since October. "There is absolutely nothing to eat," said Domingos de Araujo, the sub-district secretary, and "those still alive are looking for wild potatoes in the forest."


Reports from districts in East Timor continue to filter in: 10,000 people are staving in Cova Lima; 10,000 households are going hungry in Suai; and Los Palos, Baucau, and Manufahi districts are all reporting a food crisis.


The government's National Disaster Management Office has quickly counseled against overreaction, because this is not "starvation and hunger like in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere". Instead, what is happening "is known as 'food shortage'", it said, and this "happens every year".


Therein lies the deeper tragedy: this is not extraordinary news. Regardless of whatever definition the government is playing around with, hunger is so common in East Timor, the world's newest and poorest country, that November to March is referred to as the "hungry season". Last year, food aid was distributed to 110,000 people in 11 of the country's 13 districts, and in a 2001 survey, 80% of villages reported being without adequate food at some time during the year.


While a tough drought shares some of the blame, the question that screams to be asked is: Why is a nation of fewer than a million people - one that is supposed to have received more donor funds "per capita" in the last five years than anywhere else - starving?


The more things change

Since the independence referendum of 1999, an estimated US$3 billion in aid money has been swirling around board rooms, expensive foreign restaurants in Dili, and the US-dollar bank accounts of international consultants, rarely making the desperately needed trip beyond the city limits of the national capital. In one government department, a single international consultant earns in one month the same as his 20 Timorese colleagues earn together in an entire year. Another consultant charged the United Nations Development Program $8,000 for his first-class air ticket from his island tax haven. These stories add up. A recent European Commission evaluation of the World Bank-managed Trust Fund for East Timor noted that one-third of the allocated funds were eaten up in consultants' fees, to say nothing of overheads and tied procurements. But the problem is far deeper than the financial waste of the international aid industry.


Dili's development elite no doubt blame the past. To be sure, the departing Indonesian military destroyed 70% of East Timor's infrastructure and displaced two-thirds of the population during its bloody exit in 1999. Indeed, since the Portuguese first landed on the tiny island almost 500 years ago, the Timorese struggle to overcome hunger and control their systems of food production has been intimately tied up with their struggle against foreign occupiers.


For the farmers of Hatabuiliko and some 40,000 families across the mountain provinces, coffee is the symbol of this struggle. The Portuguese expanded the industry in the 1800s with the usual brutal colonial formula of land dispossession, forced labor and cultivation. The Indonesian military took over the industry in 1976 with such ruinous exploitation that coffee farmers were in effect forced to fund their own genocide. This left the sector in a state that Timor's Planning Commission described in 2002 as "non-viable".


Since the independence vote in 1999, the donor-prescribed dismantling of state supports for the industry, combined with an oversupplied and deregulated global coffee market, has consigned farmers to misery. Coffee, the nation's flagship export, earned a dismal $5 million in 2003 (total exports were only $6 million), the result of prices being a mere 19% of their 1980 value, and in 2002, the lowest-ever in real terms.


Free Timor, free market

Under the larger donor blueprint of Timor's reconstruction, the market has been radically liberalized, all state support has been curtailed, and the government has been cut in half, restricted to 17,000 staff under World Bank/International Monetary Fund-imposed macroeconomic conditionalities and a miserly national budget of $75 million. There's no need for big government, according to the development elite, when the state should stick to being a cheerleader for a "dynamic private sector", riding high on an export-led economy fueled by foreign direct investment.


Last year, a group of rice farmers in Bobonaro district spoke about how they were faring in this brave new globalized world. They lamented that imported rice from Thailand and Vietnam - now representing as much as 55% of domestic consumption - undercuts anything they can produce. While the former Indonesian occupiers invested heavily in infrastructure, subsidized basic commodities and farm inputs, and provided a guaranteed floor price for farmers, the new occupiers have scrapped all of that. These days, farmers visit their World Bank-designed and privatized Agricultural Support Center to purchase farm inputs at prices so high it pushes their production costs above the selling price of rice.


With rural life a struggle, Timorese have flocked to Dili looking for jobs. Last July, I visited Domingos Frietas, an old friend bringing up a family of five squatting in a house in Dili. He is forced to scratch around for more work because his monthly part-time teaching salary of $50 just isn't enough. A dollarized and liberalized economy, combined with the inflationary spending of the aid invasion, has dragged up the price of living beyond the average Timorese wage. Rice alone is $15 for a sack that lasts one month. Malnutrition levels in the capital are among the highest in the country.


"Electricity is so expensive, about $15 a month, if we could pay," said Domingos. That is a massive increase on the couple of dollars charged under the Indonesians. Most cannot and will not pay the tariff under the new user-pays and partly privatized system.


Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is asking people not to "politicize" the food crisis, advice bravely ignored by Abilio dos Santos, a government disaster-management official, who pointed the finger at his employer: "Timor-Leste government has neglected the starvation." He's right, in some ways. For this financial year, the Fretilin government budgeted just $1.5 million for the Ministry of Agriculture, a pitiful amount considering that 85% of the nation relies on agriculture for their largely subsistence livelihood.


This is a radical departure from 1975, when the same party protested against famine with anti-colonial defiance: "We are a nation of farmers, but still our people go hungry?" Thirty years later, the question is still asked. But instead of revolutionary songs, Fretilin is forced to dance to the donors' tune. If they don't? "Put bluntly," states a leaked US congressional memo on activities in Timor, "it seems likely that assistance levels will decline if East Timor's government pursues economic or budgetary policies which were unacceptable to donors."


Like the Indonesians and the Portuguese before them, East Timor's donors dictate policy in agriculture. "Most donor assistance is focused on the rice sector," said Ego Lemos, spokesperson for the sustainable agriculture organization Hametin Sustainabilidade Agrikultura Timor Lorosae or HASATIL (Strengthen Sustainable Agriculture in Timor-Leste). For example, an estimated $18 million of donor funds will have been spent on rehabilitating irrigation schemes from 1999-2006. But increases in rice production have been modest. Few farmers are planting a second crop in land that is dry, and occasionally ravaged by intense floods that bring irrigation-destroying sediments. In fact, rice was never a key staple in Timor, and it was only under the Indonesian occupation that production expanded. "During these 24 years we must eat rice," said Ego, who bemoaned the fact that international donors have continued this trend, neglecting more appropriate upland crops such as maize.


And what of the donor-prophesized arrival of foreign direct investment and the private sector?


"[With] start-up costs 30% higher and operating costs 50% higher than the rest of the region, there aren't too many areas for investment in this country," said one government investment adviser. One chicken factory near Dili was forced to shut down because imported chickens are only half the price of the local product.


Meanwhile, the economy is steadily contracting and unemployment is skyrocketing, with 15,000 people entering the workforce each year. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) conceded at the last donors' meeting that these pressures are "reinforcing widespread poverty and serious underemployment". The deepening crisis of Asia's poorest country should be apparent to all. Indeed, donors have been wondering why Timorese farmers and workers aren't blossoming into productive micro-capitalists, just as the textbooks tell them.


Local wages are too high, said the IMF in its latest report, praising the government for resisting "the introduction of populist measures" such as a minimum wage. (The World Bank led by example, forcing Chubb security to cut the salaries of the Bank's security guards from $134 to $88 per month.)


The Timorese people are not ambitious enough, said one donor-commissioned trade report, recommending the engagement of an institute to teach Timor's "low-income youngsters entrepreneurship". They should forget about their rice and chickens, and diversify into "market-dynamic commodities," the US Agency for International Development and the World Bank recommended.


But for Ego, the sustainable agriculture activist, this logic sidesteps reality. "Every farmer has to grow cash crops, for example, vanilla, coffee and so on, under this policy, but this is not looking at the question, 'Do people have enough to eat?'" Ego said. Even if a handful of farmers can produce niche commodities for fickle Western consumers, the rest of the country will continue to suffer, or simply disappear like the 53 men, women and children who died of starvation in Hatabuiliko. Under the free market, Timor is just a tiny half-island of surplus humanity.


Is it so offensive for a nation as poor as Timor to be allowed instead to adopt policies that support and protect 85% of the population? To heal Timor's deep colonial scars, "the government should subsidize the rural poor by investing in basic infrastructure", said Maria "Lita" Sarmento from the local land-reform and conflict-resolution organization Kdadalak Sulimutuk Institute (KSI), meaning "streams come together". "We don't need expensive technology; we just need to support our traditional systems," she added.


Ego spoke of alternative ideas for agriculture, many of them inspired by the annual farmer-organized agricultural fair "Expo Popular".


"We need to block imports of food that we can produce here," he said, adding that the argument that people will starve as a result is "nonsense".


"We have the means to feed ourselves but we need the right policies and the right assistance. In times of crisis, people are relying on yams, taro, banana, jackfruit and so on," said Ego. "We need to develop our natural food sources, not to develop a dependence on food aid, and the hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers they dump on us."


The tragedy of the famine in Timor is that the will to provide the humble assistance Ego and Lita speak of - to say nothing of the years of struggle and international solidarity - has been debased into the World Bank's policy architecture. The other barrier is the Australian government, which lays claim to $30 billion of the $38 billion of gas and oil resources in the Timor Sea. This is famine-preventing revenue that belongs to East Timor under international law.


Yet the work of Timorese such as Lita and Ego shows that the independence movement is starting to paint new slogans on old banners, pushing the idea of sovereignty beyond the parliament buildings and out into the fields and forests, as Timorese attempt to regain control over their systems of food production.


Hatabuiliko is perched at the foot of the summit of Mount Ramelau, the tallest mountain in East Timor. From the top, one can see nearly all of the small and beautiful island: a spine of mountains barely 90 kilometers wide, splitting the ocean like a wedge. Since October, people have being dying in this village, just 100km of winding mountain roads away from the capital. Since October, dozens of aid-industry elite have passed through the village on tourist pilgrimages before parking their four-wheel-drives on the other side to begin the ascent. Many would have hired a guide from Hatabuiliko. So why didn't any of them notice? Is the disconnection between donors and Timorese reality so complete that those dying of hunger become an unremarkable part of the landscape?


Last year I spent one cold night in the church at Hatabuiliko. I don't know who among the people I shared a meal and a few happy hours with have died. Those who remain must be asking why their nightmare continues.


Ben Moxham is a research associate with Focus on the Global South, a research and advocacy organization based in Bangkok, Thailand. For the past two years he has worked in East Timor monitoring the reconstruction process with local organizations and the government. He can be reached at


(Copyright 2005 Ben Moxham.)