Thursday, 24 January 2013

Sowing the seeds in 2013 and beyond

Professor Jessica Fanzo
Prof. Jessica Fanzo
Agriculture provides livelihood for more than 80% of the population of East Timor (Timor-Leste). The specific focus of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) in East Timor is increasing food security. 

This blog post has been authored by Professor Jessica Fanzo, Renewed Effort Against Child Hunger and undernutrition (REACH), World Food Programme and Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Columbia University.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Timor-Leste to work with Seeds of Life, a program within the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries supported by AusAID and ACIAR. The work is focused on integrating nutrition into its food security efforts at a national scale.

Seeds of Life program participant, Isabella and her daughter
Isabella Decavarhlo maintains her family's peanut and sweetpotato crop. Isabella is part of a Seeds of Life support group that received training in effective methods of planting, maintenance and post-harvest. Isabella, pictured here with her daughter Elvita Bendita Da Seus Soares, lives in Slary village with her husband and their 6 children.

Timor Leste is a country steeped in a history of conflict and conquests, which have resulted in stalled development and progress on all fronts. Healthcare, food security, infrastructure, and capacity are all lacking in a serious way, with the exception of political will. This small island has been independent for only one decade, and now with UN Peacekeeping forces pulling out as of December 31 2012, Timor-Leste is beginning to mark its own path on what will likely be a long road towards development.

Seeds of Life program participants. Happy women!
Ignatia Da Silva and Jacinta Soares received seed stock and training from Seeds of Life earlier in 2012.
Both ladies are happy with the crop so far and believe it is good quality.

One of the biggest development challenges Timor-Leste faces is its state of nutrition. Timor-Leste is in a crisis situation with 58% of children under five being moderately to severely stunted, one of the highest prevalence rates in the world. In some districts of Timor Leste, the number is as high as 75%. Furthermore, 38% of people in Timor-Leste suffer from anaemia. Why is this? I think the reasons are complex which are clouded with its long-term political instability, however some big determinants stand out:

1. Poverty: The country is a brand new country, and they have a long way to go to rebuild their nation after 70% of its infrastructure had been destroyed. They are now building the political architecture moving forward. Timor-Leste has dedicated significant efforts towards improving the country’s financial and human resources, which remain limited. The country sits on massive amounts of oil in the Timorese Sea, which is worth billions. It will be interesting to see how they spend these funds on their citizens beyond just pensions for veterans who fought in the resistance. But with the absolute poverty line at US$0.88 per day, and with major issues of high youth unemployment and increased poverty rates in rural areas, investments will need to be made in areas such as agriculture and rural infrastructure and technology.
Alberto Da Costa shows part of his rice harvest
Alberto Da Costa shows part of his rice harvest

2. Dietary Diversity: The Timorese eat a lot of starch – potatoes, cassava, and rice. Rice rules in Timor-Leste but comes from Vietnam. They don’t eat much meat, and are low consumers of fish, although they are surrounded by water. Most Timorese are subsistence farmers working on marginal lands with nutrient-poor, shallow soils, so food insecurity in general is high and the dry season takes its toll.

3. Primary Health Care and Culture Links: Sanitation and hygiene is a huge issue and health care services are sparse. Dengue and malaria are no joke. Knowledge on childcare practices and traditional cultural taboos and rituals tend to dictate decision making, the way limited funds are spent, and what is purchased at the household level. Cockfighting is a huge business, often at the expense, and this is just a hypothesis, of spending money instead on necessary childcare.

Corn harvest is weighed
Corn harvest is weighed
4. Capacity Development: Capacity to deliver interventions, to govern the country and scale up development efforts remains a huge issue. Now that the Peacekeeping Forces have pulled out, it is time for donors to start thinking about how to invest in capacity development for Timor-Leste as a part of the country’s overarching development plans.
5. Access: Access to markets, to healthcare or healthworker, and technology remains scant at best, particularly in rural areas. Timor-Leste is very mountainous – and the roads are awful. The north to the south of the island is only 120 kilometers but it takes 5 hours by car to make the trek. Lucky for me, I was in a car.

There are only 1 million people on the island, and they are squeezed in between Indonesia and Australia, countries of growth and prosperity respectively. What a great place for donors to come to the table and make some investments with high impact. Investments in rural agriculture (from rice production to coffee to vegetable and fruit production), community health and extension workforces, and improving the capacity in the government are doable, in a short time period. There is only one nutritionist in the Ministry of Health for the country! On the nutrition front, I hope Timor-Leste joins the SUN movement to demonstrate their commitment to improving nutrition in their country. Tourism could be huge in Timor-Leste. Investments in ecotourism along with some help on how to keep beaches clean and how to build a tourism industry is desperately needed.

East Timorese child with peanuts from the family farm
East Timorese child with peanuts from the family farm

By working with the Seeds of Life team, we are trying to improve the nutrition within the varieties selected for their national seed system, and providing nutrition education and knowledge to cooperatives of farmers working in the formal and informal seeds systems in the country. We are starting at the basics of food security, the seed. I think it is a good place to start.
As we enter 2013, I hope we will see a Timor-Leste on its own, independent, and beginning to prosper. A country where the cycle of stunting is broken and children grow, learn and become prosperous citizens. The time is now to pull for Timor-Leste. They deserve the chance!

The post has been adapted from the Development Horizon blog site, managed by Lawrence Haddad, Director of the Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom.

Posted by Alexandra Bagnara, ACIAR

1 comment:

  1. I think government should take immediate action for the well being of Timor Leste; 80% of Timor Leste is agricultural based. So if people of Timor Leste suffer from poverty and malnutrition, then in long run it will effect the entire country for food scarcity.
    Thanks a lot for sharing the article with us.


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