by Sarah Burr
What is food security? To be food secure is to always have access to sufficient, nutritious, and affordable food. Food security covers the dimensions of time, place, quantity, quality, and cost. To be food insecure is to be lacking at least one of these components. Food insecurity can lead to malnutrition, stunted growth in children, and ill-health. In Timor Leste, two-thirds of the population are food insecure.
During my visit to Timor Leste in October 2015, it was evident that the country was affected by drought. From the air, wide sand riverbeds were visible in the mountains, and everything was brown. The dryness at this time did not bode well for Timorese farmers and consumers, despite the impending wet season, as food shortages in Timor Leste are most common between November (after planting) and March (before harvest). In Timor Leste, this period is called the ‘hungry season’.
Common coping mechanisms during the ‘hungry season’ include women forgoing food, girls being given less food than boys, and for women to eat after men. As a result, malnutrition in women is greater in highland areas than in major urban centres. In Dili, where people are less reliant on home garden yields and seasonal agricultural earnings, adequate nutrition is easier to attain, but food security is still not guaranteed.
When I visited Dili in the lead up to 2015’s ‘hungry season’, vacant lots were planted with bananas, people collected mangoes from trees in the street, men sold fish hanging from bamboo poles at the beach, markets sold tinned tuna and tinned tomatoes, and the main road had recently been resealed. But looks can be deceiving. Banana plants take around 9 months to a year to grow and produce fruit, and none of the lots were carrying fruit. The mangoes being collected were green and hard, which causes diarrhoea in those who eat them. In a country surrounded by sea, there is no strong fishing industry, and the fish hanging from poles were frozen and imported from Indonesia. The tinned food at the markets came from overseas, and cost $2 USD per small tin (by contrast, Australians can buy a tin of tomatoes at Coles for 75 cents AUD). The roads in Dili were in good condition, but roads outside the city were dangerous and poorly maintained, limiting transportation of food (and healthcare, and people) between urban and rural areas.
Farmers need higher-yielding varieties of seed for staples such as cassava, sweet potato, rice, maize and beans, access to fertiliser (such as animal manure and plant matter) and reliable water supply to increase food production. A program called Seeds of Life (Fini ba Moris in Tetun) is responsible for releasing improved seed varieties to farmers. Agricultural extension centres are educating farmers on techniques to increase yields. The Timorese Government needs to invest in water infrastructure such as pipes from dams to taps on farms, to reduce the amount of time dedicated to collecting water from dams in jerry cans.
Aid programs are promoting improved post-harvest food storage systems to reduce losses from rodent and pest damage. Other programs encourage sharing knowledge about cooking and nutrition among women, in order to reduce malnutrition in women and children. Several aid projects are dedicated to teaching farmers to raise tilapia fish in on-farm ponds for additional income and increased protein options. Having access to cash income for purchasing food is important to overcome seasonal food variability. Transportation infrastructure such as roads also needs improvement, to facilitate trade and market access between rural and urban Timorese. Better food distribution will improve food supply, and reduce reliance on expensive imported products.
Addressing the components of food security will markedly reduce malnutrition among women and children in Timor Leste, and may even eliminate the ‘hungry season’ altogether.
Sarah visited Timor Leste as a tourist in October 2015 and loved every minute of it. She has a Master of Agribusiness from the University of Melbourne and thoroughly enjoyed discussing women’s issues and agriculture in Timor Leste with women from the YWCA Timor Leste in Dili, and both international and Timorese agriculture project officers and students on Atauro Island.