Sowing seeds of peace in East Timor

Refugees return to their homes in East Timor
Agriculture, the most important economic sector in East Timor, was hit hard by the violence that followed the 30 August referendum on East Timor's independence from Indonesia. Almost a third of farming families lost all their assets. Equipment was wrecked or stolen, seed stocks ravaged and livestock killed. In addition, 70 percent of all private residences, public buildings and infrastructure was destroyed.

Early in September, FAO participated in the mission of the United Nations Inter-Agency Emergency Response Team. Following the assessment carried out, the FAO Special Relief Operations Service formulated a plan of action for short-term recovery of the agriculture sector. The main aim was to provide people with seeds so crops could be planted to restore food security and improve the nutritional status in both rural and urban areas.

Distributing seeds

"It was a big challenge and a fight against time," says Mr Joseph Dome, the FAO Relief Operations Coordinator for FAO in East Timor. "The rainy season was approaching and the seeds had to be purchased, distributed and planted before it struck."

Maize seeds hang from trees before distribution

The focus of efforts by UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in agriculture has been on purchasing and distributing maize, vegetable and rice seed. Food aid is also being provided so that people are not forced to eat the seed stocks. In total, 320 tonnes of maize seed and 110 tonnes of bean and vegetables seed have now reached the farmers and crops are growing in the fields. Rice seed, which is planted later than the other crops, is still being distributed. FAO has worked jointly with the World Food Programme (WFP) in a food-for-seed programme whereby surplus rice seed in areas of East Timor has been exchanged for food and redistributed to the more destitute areas. East Timor's most urgent seed requirements have now been met.

"Food production has still not reached a satisfactory level, but shortages are much less dramatic now, and no one is starving," says Mr Dome. That is a major improvement over the situation Dome found when he arrived in East Timor in September. Little information was available on the agricultural system as records had been destroyed and most of the Indonesian technicians from the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture had fled. In addition were all the logistical problems connected to the purchase and distribution of the seeds: obtaining trucks, gasoline and funds and finding a way to reach the villages, given that many roads had been destroyed.

Future activities

The effort was helped significantly by collaboration among village chiefs, religious authorities and political parties as well as NGOs and UN agencies. "The acute emergency phase is over now. But the work hasn't finished and we need more funds so we can continue the effort to rebuild the agricultural sector," says Mr Dome. The FAO Special Relief Operations Service plans to concentrate future efforts in East Timor on rehabilitation of the fishery sector to improve nutrition and create income. Plans also call for an animal health campaign for the few cattle that remain, as their labour is crucial for preparing fields for planting.

A donors' meeting in Tokyo in mid-December resulted in around US$500 million in funding for the next three years to rebuild East Timor and ensure its smooth transition to independence. How much of these funds will be spent on agriculture is still unclear, but FAO estimates that approximately $1.4 million is needed to implement a much-needed animal health campaign, rehabilitate the fishery sector and establish a unit to coordinate agricultural efforts. "We don't need much to achieve a lot in this field, but help is needed urgently," Mr Dome says.

FAO and WFP have just released a special report about the crop and food supply situation in East Timor. It concludes that food supply prospects are less gloomy than envisaged at the height of the crisis. The report emphasizes that this good news is partly due to the highly effective seed distribution by the international organizations. Food assistance will still be essential for areas assessed to be particularly vulnerable to food shortages.