The World Food Programme (WFP) says about one-third of Timor-Leste’s 1.1 million inhabitants regularly experience food shortages, notably towards the end of the two lean seasons between harvests, October-November and February-March.
“Most families that live in the more remote and inaccessible rural areas experience some kind of food shortage throughout the year,” Paul Joicey, country director for Oxfam’s Timor-Leste programme, told IRIN in Dili, the capital.
In remote areas many families remain unable to grow enough corn and rice to meet their own subsistence needs, he said. “That’s your chronically food insecure population,” Joicey said.
Government statistics indicate that approximately 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas.
Fuelling the problem are low crop yields, lack of storage facilities, poverty, poor rural infrastructure and underdeveloped markets, studies by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reveal.
According to the most recent WFP Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) in 2006, 20 percent of households are described as food insecure, 23 percent as highly vulnerable, 21 percent moderately vulnerable, and 36 percent food secure.
Quantity versus quality
But food quantity is just part of the problem, with quality and dietary diversity also a major concern - and not only during the lean seasons.
Many families sustain themselves mainly on staple foods like cassava and rice, with protein, fruit and vegetables particularly hard to come by during the lean season. As a result, many people eat mainly carbohydrates.
Almost half of all children under five are chronically malnourished, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says.
In addition to international efforts, the government has taken several steps to eliminate food shortages at the national and household levels, making it a national priority.
In recent years the government has instituted safety net programmes such as the provision of free food to the vulnerable, including pensioners and widows.
At the same time, WFP is assisting the government with the provision of a micro-nutrient fortified blended food to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, babies and infants, to prevent the onset of malnutrition that may have lifelong effects.
“This is probably one of the most effective food-based interventions against child malnutrition,” Joan Fleuren, the WFP country representative in Dili, said, “and the government’s commitment to this programme is obvious when you realize that they have purchased the machine to produce fortified blended food locally, with which WFP is currently assisting them.”
And despite the annual struggle many subsistence farmers continue to face in producing enough food to sustain themselves, people do seem to be more capable of accessing food during the lean season.
This points to the crucial importance of other livelihood strategies to complement farming that are enabling people to purchase food in the lean season – through the accumulation of livestock and other assets; access to credit and remittances; government programmes and other coping strategies.
“That’s what’s making a difference in food security,” Joicey said.
“I think it [the food security situation] is going in the right direction,” he said, citing the fact that the length of time people are actually experiencing severe shortages was decreasing.
“But we still have a long way to go,” he stressed, noting that food security remains a source of concern for aid workers on the ground.
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