Subject: Violence hits E Timorese agriculture

ABC Rural Northern Territory

Violence hits E Timorese agriculture

By Adrienne Francis

Friday, 02/06/2006

The weeks of violence in East Timor, have taken a huge toll on the fortunes of those living far beyond the capital. The fires, looting and mayhem across Dili this week is seriously affecting the nations rural industries, which are the main source of employment and income. Country Hour presenter Adrienne Francis spoke to East Timor's Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Estanislau Da Silva, whose office had been looted.

"The situation now is very calm, but it's still very fragile. Looting is still continuing in some areas. But with the Australian troops and the expected arrival of the Portuguese National Guard, we hope the situation will be under total control soon. The other 12 outlying rural districts across East Timor are very calm. The Fomento building was looted yesterday. Computers were taken, and other officers were looted, they took everything. They took some of our documents and destroyed others. Especially on crops, and data regarding information for farmers. Some of these projects are financed by Australia."

Minister Da Silva says eight years of research and documentation have been lost in the looting and blazes in the capital of Dili. "Now we have to re-organise the data, we may have to do new trials, a repetition, and other data we were collecting and surveys of the districts that we may have lost. This is a huge setback for us, yes. We work closely with the Ministry of Justice in terms of land and property, and these files were destroyed, eight years of work.

(This is a loss because) we had to re-do everything because when the Indonesians left they destroyed everything. It's not easy to re-build this data as conditions have now changed. This will impact on the background information people need. The immediate impact will not affect rural poverty, but if you want to do a study there may not be background information to support this. This unrest is artificial, this does not happen in the rural districts. This trouble was created and fabricated in Dili, where the un-employment is high. In the districts we do not have any instances of in fighting."

Minister Da Silva says many of the fresh produce and fires have destroyed livestock markets in Dili in the violence. As a result, the price of fresh fruit and vegetables has skyrocketed. "The price of the produce has sky-rocketed, there are not much fresh fruit and vegetables, and this has a tremendous impact. It's hard for rural farmers to bring their produce to Dili to sell, and people can't go there to buy it.

"The price of staple grains like rice has not increased that much. However one hand-full of bananas has increased from US$1-2, paw paws from US 25 cents - US$2 and bunches of vegetables from US 15 cents - US 50 cents. We hope that once we have improved the situation these prices may go down again, hopefully in the next few weeks. One way or another, people are trying to help each other, gestures of solidarity. People, who are living in camps, are receiving assistance from government. People normally give food to each other and in crisis time, people are in solidarity with each other."

There are also fears the harvest of the largest agricultural industry could be down by more than half. Coffee exports to Europe, America and Australia, normally earn the nation between $US6m to $US8m each year. Up to 200,000 people are reliant on the industry (for income generation and employment), which was due to record a bumper crop this season.

Minister Da Silva says seasonal harvest laborers are too afraid to leave their homes, unable to travel across the regions and the movement of produce has been disrupted. "Now we are in the coffee season. It's the harvesting coffee season and this can have a tremendous impact on the livelihood and the people who depend on coffee," he said. "It's the main agriculture export at the moment apart from the export of fish.

Almost 200,000 people depend directly or indirectly on the coffee, and unfortunately harvest has been effected, because you have to go to some districts and sub-districts to pick up the coffee and then process it properly." The rice growing and candlenut cropping (candle-nuts yield very fine oils for cosmetic industry) industries have also been disrupted by the violence.

The divide between the east and western parts of the country could also impact longer-term efforts to de-centralise services. However, the Minister says the East Timorese have lived with adversity for decades, and are familiar with surviving poverty. "We have already de-centralised some of our services. Some of our directors remain in the districts, but now things are getting difficult, there is not enough fuel (in the districts), the rice harvest cannot be milled due to a lack of fuel, and they are also having trouble storing it properly."

Minister Da Silva lived in Australia for almost 15 years, gaining a postgraduate degree from the University of Sydney, and working as a research agronomist on weeds in the northern NSW town of Trangie. He also worked on nematode control using cover crops at Rydalmere and as technical officer (weeds) at Narrabri before returning to East Timor in 1999.

In this report: Estanislau Da Silva, Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, East Timor. 

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