On 7 February 2005 the Timor-Leste newspaper Suara Timor Loro Sa’e reported that since October 2004 at least 53 people had died of starvation in the village of Hatabuilico. 'There is absolutely nothing to eat,' Domingos de Araujo, the sub-district secretary was reported as saying, and 'those still alive are looking for wild potatoes in the forest'.
The Government denied the report, with the suggestion that they had died of disease over a longer period of time, albeit exacerbated by malnutrition and lack of access to medical care. Angered at the airing of the issue, Prime Minister Alkatiri withdrew all government advertising from the newspaper and served it with an eviction order.
But reports continue to filter in. A huge crop failure in the coastal district of Cova Lima threatens 10,000 people with starvation. Los Palos, Baucau and Manufahi districts have all reported food shortages. Approximately 40 per cent of children under five years old are suffering from malnutrition in Liquica, according to CARE.
The Government's National Disaster Management Office says this is not 'starvation and hunger like in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere'. What is happening, it says, 'is known as FOOD SHORTAGE' (their capitalization). This 'happens every year'.
And there lies the deeper tragedy: this is not extraordinary news. Hunger is so common in Timor- Leste that November to March is referred to as the 'hungry season'. Last year, the World Food Programme distributed food aid to 110,000 people in 11 out of the country's 13 districts; in a 2001 survey 80 per cent of villages reported being without adequate food at some time during the year.
While Timor's harsh climate is partly responsible, the question that screams to be asked is why a nation of just under a million people, which in the last five years is supposed to have received more donor funds per capita than anywhere else in the world, is going hungry.
Since the independence referendum of 1999 an estimated $3 billion in reconstruction money has been swirling around corporate board rooms, Dili's expensive foreign restaurants 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 a month the same as all his 20 Timorese colleagues in an entire year. Another consultant charged the UN $8,000 for his first-class airfare from his island tax haven.
No doubt the past deserves blame, too. The departing Indonesian military destroyed 70 per cent of the infrastructure and displaced two-thirds of the population during their bloody exit in 1999. Their bloody entry had been worse. During a Truth, Reception and Reconciliation Commission public hearing on the famines of the late 1970s, tears rolled as survivors spoke of stepping over the emaciated corpses of family members. Tens of thousands starved to death as the occupiers turned the country into a giant prison camp.
Since the Portuguese first landed on the tiny island nearly 440 years ago, the Timorese struggle to overcome hunger and to control their systems of food production has been intimately tied up with their struggle against foreign occupiers.
For the farmers of Hatabuilico 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 colonial formula of land dispossession and forced labour. When the Indonesian military took over in 1976 coffee farmers were effectively required to fund their own genocide.
Since the independence vote in 1999 the donorprescribed dismantling of state supports for the industry, combined with an oversupplied and deregulated global coffee market, have consigned farmers to misery. Coffee, the nation's flagship export, earned a dismal $5 million in 2003 (total exports were only $6 million) - prices were a mere 19 per cent of their value in 1980 and in 2002 hit their lowest-ever value in real terms.
Following the donor blueprint for Timor's reconstruction, the market has been radically liberalized, state support has been curtailed and government cut in half - restricted to 17,000 staff and a miserly national budget of $75 million. There's no need for Big Government, according to the development élite. The State should stick to being a cheerleader for a 'dynamic private sector' riding high on an export-led economy fuelled by foreign direct investment.
Last year I spoke with a group of rice farmers in Bobonaro district about how they were faring in this brave new globalized world. They lamented that imported rice from Thailand and Vietnam - now making up 55 per cent of domestic consumption - undercuts anything they can produce. Farmers must visit their World Bank-designed and privately run Agricultural Support Centre to purchase farm inputs at prices so high that it pushes their costs of production above the selling price of rice.
With rural life a struggle, Timorese have flocked to Dili looking for jobs. In July last year I visited Domingos Frietas, an old friend bringing up a family of five in a squatted house in Dili. 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, have dragged up the cost of living beyond the average Timorese wage. Rice alone is $15 for a sack that lasts the month.
Prime Minister Alkatiri is asking people not to 'politicize' the food crisis. For this financial year, the Fretilin Government budgeted just $1.5 million for the Ministry of Agriculture - a pitiful amount considering 85 per cent of the nation rely on agriculture for their livelihood. In 1975 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 truth of the statement is unchanged, but Fretilin is now pressured into singing the donors' song.
Like the Indonesians and Portuguese before them, Timor-Leste's donors dictate policy in agriculture. 'Most donor assistance is focused on the rice sector,' says Ego Lemos, spokesperson for the sustainable agriculture organization HASATIL. For example, an estimated $18 million of donor funds will have been spent on rehabilitating rice irrigation schemes between 1999 and 2006. But increases in rice production have been modest. Few farmers are planting a second crop in land that is dry, with 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,' says Ego, who bemoans that international donors have continued this trend, neglecting more appropriate upland crops such as maize.
And what of the donorprophesied arrival of foreign direct investment and the private sector? 'Start-up costs [are] 30 per cent higher and operating costs 50 per cent higher than the rest of the region,' said one government investment adviser I quizzed. ' There aren't too many areas for investment in this country.' A local chicken factory near Dili was forced to shut down because imported chickens were half the price of the local product.
Meanwhile, the economy is contracting and unemployment is skyrocketing. Even the IMF has conceded to a donors' meeting that these pressures are 'reinforcing widespread poverty and serious underemployment'. Local wages are too high, it says in its latest report, which praises the Government for resisting 'the introduction of populist measures', like a minimum wage.
The Timorese are not ambitious enough, says one donor-commissioned trade report, recommending the engagement of an institute to teach 'entrepreneurship' to 'low-income youngsters'. They should diversify into 'market-dynamic commodities', counsel USAID and the World Bank.
For Ego, this logic side-steps reality. 'Under this policy every farmer has to grow cash crops,' he says, 'for example, vanilla, coffee and so on. But this is not looking at the question: "Do people have enough to eat?"' 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 those people from Hatabuilico. Under the free market, Timor-Leste is just a tiny halfisland of surplus humanity.
Is it so offensive for a nation as poor as Timor to be allowed to adopt policies which support and protect 85 per cent of the population? To heal Timor's deep colonial scars, 'the Government should subsidize the rural poor by investing in basic infrastructure', says 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 says.
Ego buzzes with alternative ideas for agriculture, many of them inspired by the annual farmerorganized agricultural fair 'Expo Popular'.
'We need to block imports of food that we can produce here,' argues 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. Without a change in the engine room of the economy, the admirable development efforts of some NGOs and community groups will continue to remain benign sideshows.
The other shadow cast over the island's future is the Australian Government's claim to two-thirds of the disputed oil fields in the Timor Sea. It has already extracted $2 billion of famine-preventing revenue that belongs to Timor-Leste under international law.
Yet the work of Timorese like Lita and Ego shows that the independence movement is starting to paint new slogans on its old banners: to push the idea of sovereignty beyond the parliament buildings and out into the fields and forests, as the Timorese attempt to regain control over their systems of food production.
People have been dying in Hatabuilico, barely 100 kilometres of winding mountain roads away from the capital. It is perched at the foot of the summit of Mount Ramelau, the tallest mountain in Timor-Leste, from where you can see nearly all of this beautiful island. Dozens of the aid-industry élite have passed through the village on their tourist pilgrimage to the top. So why didn't any of them notice the hunger? Is the disconnection between donors and Timorese so complete that dying of hunger has become an unremarkable part of the landscape?
Last year I spent one cold night in the church at Hatabuilico. I don't know if any of the people I shared a meal and a few happy hours with died. Those who remain must be asking why their nightmare continues.
© Copyright 2005 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.