Special report: FAO/WFP crop and food supply assessment mission to Timor-Leste

from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Published on 21 Jun 2007
Mission Highlights

2007 production of cereals, cassava and other tubers, in cereal equivalent, is forecast at about 123 500 tonnes, a modest level reflecting adverse weather conditions, especially in the northern coast, and the outbreak of locusts in the western part. With some uncertainty due to the unreliability of data, production is estimated to have contracted by 25-30 percent compared to the average level of the last few years. Production of the secondary 2007 crop will depend on timely to support to farmers, and more favourable growing conditions during the period starting in October.

Output of maize, by far the most important crop in Timor-Leste, is estimated to have declined by 30 percent, to less than 70 000 tonnes from an average of 100 000 tonnes over the last few years. Main determinants for this decline include delayed onset of rains, below normal rainfall, and reduced maize area due to shortages of seeds.

A major outbreak of locusts occurred in March in the western part of the country, causing heavy damage in maize and rice production on about 4 500 ha, losses are assessed at 4 500 tonnes.

The shortfall in maize production will not, contrary to other years, be offset by an increase in rice production, since rice was affected by the same problems, with a resulting drop of 20 percent in output.

In order to prepare the second crop, in May, and the next crop, in October, producers are in urgent need of rice and maize seeds, due to (1) the reduced output, (2) the likely consumption of seeds for food, (3) the replanting already carried out and (4) the poor quality of seeds.

The cereal deficit in 2007/08 (April/March) is estimated at 86 364 tonnes. With commercial imports anticipated at 71 000 tonnes, including expected government purchase of 16 000 tonnes for strategy reserve, there remains an uncovered import requirement of 15 000 tonnes.

The mission estimates that some 210 000 to 220 000 vulnerable rural people will require emergency food assistance for a period of 6 month, from October 2007 to March 2008, with 15 000 tonnes of cereal. In addition to the cereal deficit, the Mission recommends 3 800 tonnes of non-cereal food products to meet the required 2 100 kcal per person per day, including micro nutrient needs.

Close monitoring of key food security indicators such as agricultural production, locust infestation, health and nutrition, prices of staples up-country and in the cities, price of fuel, is needed. Adjustments may also become necessary, depending on future climatic conditions and their impact on agricultural output.

In February and March 2007, the country experienced a severe food crisis, with price hikes and virtually no rice available in the market. This was due to the unfavourable regional food supply/demand situation and social turmoil, but also to poor coordination and management of determinants of food security. This crisis highlights the need to improve food security policies, strategies, and implementation mechanisms.


A FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission visited Timor-Leste from 17 March to 8 April 2007 to review and analyze the food supply and demand situation in the context of the country's macro-economic situation, and to forecast import requirements in the light of potential food needs in marketing year 2007/08 (April/March), with particular attention to the needs of the most vulnerable groups. The team also carried out general analysis regarding food security policy in the country, as a rice crisis had just erupted; this provided lessons on what not to do in similar future circumstances. Emphasis was placed on the appropriate institutional set-up needed to achieve consistency in food security, as well as sustainable development over the longer term, especially through a rehabilitation of the agriculture sector.

The mission carried out a field survey in several districts (Manatuto, Lautem, Baucau, Oecussi, Bobonaro and Ermera), with WFP visiting the districts of Viqueque, Liquiça, and Manufahi. The situation in the other districts was assessed through interviews with agents of the Ministries, traders, and other sources. A specific survey was made to assess the extent of the locust outbreak in the districts of Bobonaro and Ermera and the risk of its subsequent propagation to other districts as migratory swarms already had started to form. An evaluation of the impact of the infestation on crops, especially maize and rice, in these two districts - among the few that can be labelled as surplus districts -, was carried out, and an emergency action plan was prepared to halt the propagation of the locusts. Damage to crops is currently estimated at 500 tonnes of rice and 4 000 tonnes of maize.

The timing of the mission was scheduled for a normal harvest time starting in March and peaking in April. Due to a delay in the onset of rains, and drought during the flowering stage, the mission observed reduced crops, and a reduced planted acreage of rice.

The majority of rural households are subsistence farmers who practice inter-cropping of maize and cassava and other tubers or legumes, often in scattered locations. Hence, the transition to a market-based agricultural system is likely to prove difficult in the coming years, with such difficulty further compounded by the isolation of remote areas, very poor extension services offered to producers, and limited access to private sector services. There is also very scant investment in up-and crops. Assistance to the rehabilitation of irrigation systems currently lacks planning, a weakness that is exemplified by the low provision for maintenance usually reported. Rehabilitation is also insufficiently based on community participation, a fact that may strengthen, or at least leave unchanged, an attitude of passivity inherited from the colonial and Indonesian eras. Poor post-harvest practices, particularly in rice, are a major constraint to raising the competitiveness of domestic agricultural production. This limits local procurement of food aid and the constitution of food reserves from domestic supply, which is currently minimal. In rice, poor drying contributes a high proportion of broken grains during milling, a defect of domestic rice often reported by consumers and traders. This is partly due to lack of labour and adequate threshing and drying facilities. Another major weakness of post harvest activities is the lack of adequate storage equipments and knowhow, and the resulting high loss rate for grains. Effective policy measures are needed to promote the development of domestic agriculture to draw closer to self-sufficiency in staples and other food products and hence, improved food security.

Rice growers often are more specialized in this crop, which may weaken their food security to the extent that they cannot resort to other crops as a coping mechanism in case of rice shortfall. Rainfall and its distribution over time is a major limiting factor to yields and output. Generally speaking, this small country is very fragmented in terms of terrain and rainfall conditions, with sometimes an abundant crop in one location and a drastic shortfall in production only a short distance away. This complicates the assessment of overall production, also in view of unreliable data on agricultural production. In the Southern part of the country, a second crop of rice and maize can be grown, whereas in the Northern part, this is not possible, excepted on irrigated areas.

Overall agricultural performance in 2007 was poor. Total production of maize, rice and cassava (in cereal equivalent) is forecast at 123 469 tonnes, a decline of 25-30 percent compared to the average over the last few years, due to late onset of rains, lack of maize seeds and other inputs and generally unfavourable, erratic, rainfall. Assistance in providing seeds, particularly for maize, is therefore urgently needed. The drought occurred at the beginning of the season, adversely affecting maize. Farmers delayed rice planting until adequate water became available, but also reduced planted acreage.

Cassava production in 2007 is projected to decline slightly compared to the average level, causing a rise in the price of this tuber, as effective demand switched from expensive rice to tubers.

As a result of the lower overall production, cereal import requirements for the marketing year 2007/08 are estimated at 86 364 tonnes. Projected needs for food aid by WFP in rice total some 15 000 tonnes, government imports for the constitution of strategic reserves and for subsidized sales is expected at 16 000 tonnes which will be brought through private traders or government-to-government agreements. The rest of the rice import requirement of some 49 000 tonnes is expected to be met by private commercial importers. Due to methodological difficulties, the contribution beans, bananas and other products is not taken into account in the calculation of the country's overall food balance. These products often play an important part in nutrition both quantitatively - in terms of calorie intake - and qualitatively - due to the important nutrients that they bring to the diet. This, however, should not substantially change the stark picture of food security in the country in the coming year.

Food security in Timor-Leste is a key component of national security at large since only 36 percent of households are considered food secure, and global chronic malnutrition affects 47 percent of the population countrywide. Household food security is highly heterogeneous across districts, despite the fact that food insecurity is generally more pronounced in rural upland areas, where subsistence farmers are not able to engage in other activities. Food insecurity is positively correlated with the lean season, since the depletion of the vulnerable households' stocks is then particularly rapid. It is worth noting that this depletion of stocks added to the contraction of output is occurring after two years of reduced crops. Together with flaws in food security policy, these factors can help explain why stocks were very scarce at the beginning of the recent rice crisis, and why the disruptions thus caused were so deep.

Food security also continues to be hampered by (1) limited market access, with villages being on average 20 miles away from the nearest market, (2) lack of effective demand by subsistence farmers in rural areas and impoverished city dwellers, Dili in particular, (3) very high post-harvest losses, (4) shortages of secure onfarm storage capacity, as well as (5) absence of policies to promote domestic production in the face of strong international competition, especially for rice.

Vulnerability analysis indicates that the total number of persons in prioritized districts in need of food assistance is 210 000-220 000 countrywide. It is worth noting that while most IDPs receive food aid, only a small proportion of subsistence farmers benefit from it. In addition to this, households up-country often accommodate IDPs from the cities, mainly Dili, a situation which further strains their already stressed resources. A better targeting of the needy and commensurate allocation of food aid may help in addressing the tensions created by what is often perceived as an unfair treatment by some population groups.

School-feeding (now called Food for Education) is an efficient tool to build up food security as it combines many advantages: (1) child under- and malnutrition problems are directly addressed, with all subsequent benefits when they grow, (2) it is an incentive to attend school, hence is conducive to sustainable development and (3) takes off a burden from their parents' shoulders both in terms of time to prepare food and, obviously helps provide sufficient food for the children. Mother and Child Health programmes (MCH) are also needed to safeguard pregnant women and children from deterioration of nutrition situation.