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Despite economic growth, rural Timorese remain dependent on bush food
KAITEHU – Bendita Ramos grimaced as she pointed over the rickety roadside fence. On the other side of the barrier, a field of bedraggled-looking maize plants, some stooped as if sheltering from the steady drizzle falling from the slate sky above.
“The corn we plant are damaged because of the long dry season and then the heavy rain,” the mother of 5 explained.
100 meters west along the road, which links Timor-Leste’s capital Dili with the nearby town of Liquica, diggers hacked at the ground and workmen took turns at allowing single lanes of traffic pass around the roadworks, first one way, then the other.
For Xanana Gusmao, the independence hero who a month ago stood down as Prime Minister, fixing Timor-Leste’s sinuous, pockmarked roads was one step on the way to helping his 13 year old country climb out of poverty..
But for Bendita Ramos, escaping hardship seems far-fetched, given that she must hike across hills to forage for the wild plants she needs to supplement her family’s diet.
“Two hours walk, it grows there,” she said, pointing back over her shoulder and beyond her pink-painted 2 room house toward mist-shrouded hills behind. What grows is bitter bean, a poisonous legume found across the Timorese countryside.
The long walk is but the start of an arduous process, however, as the bean needs careful preparation before it can be eaten, adding to what is typically a corn and rice-dominated diet.
“We have to boil it 7 or 8 times, and change the water each time,” Ramos said.
Eating wild plants – beans, wild yams and sago palm – is especially commonplace during lean years when the dry season last longer than the May- November usual.
“The whole system of farming here is that you wait for it [the ground] to dry, you burn it, and you plant into the soil,” said Rob Williams, a researcher at Seeds of Life, a research organisation under Timor-Leste’s Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries. If the weather changes, the system is undermined, meaning people can go hungry – or must forage for wild food.
Along with colleagues at Seeds of Life, Williams authored a research paper published in the Food Security journal in December 2014. Based on various Seeds of Life studies carried out across the county since the mid 2000’s, the article examined the prevalence of foraging for wild food in Timor-Leste.
But foraging is not just an emergency measure for rural Timorese – it is a regular means of supplementing meagre diets.
“80-90 per cent of rural households would rely on food from the bush, as we say in Australia,” Williams said. In contrast to Australia, where people can look for wild food as a novelty supplement, many in Timor-Leste have no choice but to forage.
“Here it s a survival mechanism,” Williams emphasised.
Timor-Leste was among the worst-ranked countries in the 2014 Global Hunger Index, a survey of nutrition standards in 76 counties published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The Dili government disputed the findings, but researchers elsewhere say that inadequate diet remains a matter of importance in Timor-Leste.
“Perhaps one of Timor-Leste’s most serious socioeconomic concerns is malnutrition,” said the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in After the Buffaloes Clash, a recent report on Timor-Leste.
Bendita Ramos remembered that in 2006, it was not just adverse weather that interrupted farming: Timor-Leste saw fighting between factions in the army and police, driving 150,000 into refugee camps and disrupting livelihoods. “That year especially we ate a lot of elephant yam and wild bean,” she recalled.
But with increased government spending and what in recent years has been a high growth economy, backed by a now US$16.5 billion Petroleum Fund, Timor-Leste is these days better able to protect its people against going hungry, at least compared with 2006.
“Timor-Leste has been drawing down money from the Petroleum Fund and channeling it through the budget to meet pressing needs,” said Bolormaa Amgaabazar, the World Bank representative in Timor-Leste.
Amgaabazar cited a “near-halving of infant and child mortality rates; significant gains in health and education” as demonstrating the perceived effectiveness of the Timorese government’s policies.
Since 2006, hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to veterans of Timor-Leste’s independence struggle against Indonesia has meant more money in circulation in the countryside than in the past.
“Families have more access to cash and the government has made a big effort to get rice, some of it imported, to the districts,” said Rob Williams.