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East Timor Faces Food Shortage

Food shortages in East Timor, two and half years after the territory achieved independence from Indonesia, are causing complaints that the government is paying too little attention to agriculture.

There have been press and human rights organization reports since last October that people are suffering from starvation in East Timor. The Los Palos, Suai and Manufahi districts are among areas of the region where a food crisis reportedly has affected thousands of people. At least 50 people are said to have died in one village, alone.

A severe drought causing food shortages is not uncommon for the East Timorese. It happens almost every year. The most severe occurred between 1977-1979, while the country was under Indonesian rule, when thousands of East Timorese died. The Indonesian military was accused of causing the food shortages in order to weaken the local political resistance movement.

But reports about starvation in the former Indonesia's territory this year have raised concerns that the government has not done enough to ease the problem of food shortages.

In Washington, Constancio Pinto, Deputy Chief of Mission at East Timor's embassy, says some of the complaints of food shortages may originate with opponents of the government's decision to send aid to Indonesia's tsunami-stricken province, Aceh.

"I am very cautious about the news since the news has come out few weeks after some allegations against the [East Timorese] government decision of providing relief assistance to Aceh. I understand some of the political party leaders criticize that. I hope that this is not a politicized-news," he said.

Mr. Pinto acknowledges there are some food shortages. But he says the government is working hard to deal with the problem.

"The government is investigating it and trying to provide some food delivery," he said.

The government's efforts have come under some criticism. Dionisio Soares is Deputy Chief of the Asia Foundation in Dili. He calls the government policy "too centralized."

Mr. Soares says all decisions are being made by the central government in the capital, Dili, including the distribution of food to areas across the country. The government may want to prevent corruption in pursuing this policy, says Mr. Soares, but its overwhelming control has brought about unintended results, that is, corruption by some officials.

Manuela Pereira, an activist with Fokupers, The East Timorese Women's Communication Forum, based in Dili, says starvation is a burning issue now in East Timor. She visited Suai district recently and says she witnessed people there suffering from hunger.

Manuela Pereira says the East Timorese rely heavily on farming, which, in turn depends on the weather. They do not, she says, have adequate food supplies and in Suai, people are so desperate for food that they are forced to sell their houses at bargain prices - $120 - to be able to buy rice.

According to some analysts, a food shortage in East Timor cannot be blamed on any single factor. Poor infrastructure and soil quality in most parts of East Timor have contributed to the continuing lack of food in that country.

Domingus Saldanha, the managing editor of the Suara Timor Lorosae newspaper in Dili, says he has monitored the situation and found there is starvation in several areas.

However, Mr. Saldanha says he does not believe that the government policy is the prime cause of the food shortage. One of the major factors, he argues, has been the inability of local communities to afford irrigation systems for their farms, that could mitigate the effects of drought.

Nevertheless he believes the government should do much more for the nation's farmers.

Mr. Saldanha says East Timor is an agrarian country. The majority of the people are engaged in farming. But, he says, the government does not make agriculture a priority in its budget. Agriculture accounts for only five percent of the budget. He also says the village remain a central part of the people's life in East Timor and the government should help villagers to become productive farmers.

East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world. Basic income, literacy and health are among the world's lowest. According to the United Nations Development Program, with a total population of more than 800,000, East Timor has a per capita annual income of $478.

The world's newest nation faces many challenges and raising the living standard of its people is one of those challenges.