Subject: IPS: East Timor Aid Workers Warn of Food Politics

DEVELOPMENT-EAST TIMOR: Aid Workers Warn of Food Politics

By Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, Nov 23 (IPS) All's not well in the urgent distribution of food and seeds in East Timor, before the heavy monsoon rains expected this week makes planting impossible and roads impassable.

While East Timor's leaders have accused the United Nations of marginalising them, aid workers, however, claimed the territory's leading political group was interfering in their work in villages.

Rob Wesley-Smith, a team leader and agricultural consultant with the Irish aid group Oikos, said his agency worked alongside the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) to help mobilise farmers so that his aid workers and volunteers could work together with them.

But lately, he has encountered problems.

''We're racing against time and depend heavily on local CNRT people to help us in the logistics of distributing the seed to villagers. But now we come across cases where the local CNRT head virtually insisted on all the seed going into his store-room where he could distribute it in his own time, which is very slow,'' said Wesley-Smith.

Wesley-Smith said if the tail-end of the planting season is missed, hunger would be widespread and may well leave the East Timorese without food for the next six months.

''I didn't come here to distribute seed to a warehouse. I've come to distribute seed to the people quickly,'' said the angry agricultural consultant. ''Lots of farmers have not been able to plant their fields as they wish. In some cases they might not be able to plant before the wet season.''

Added Wesley-Smith: ''The NGOs are struggling to get seed out to the districts and sub-districts and if there is any organisation there that doesn't jump in and help immediately, then it's a great shame. We'll then have several disasters on our hands.''

Last week, there were signs that the relationship between CNRT and the UN was becoming strained.

CNRT last month appointed a six-member commission to advise the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) that is expected to rule the devastated territory for the next two or three years.

UNTAET will formally take over the stewardship of East Timor and be responsible for everything from visas to currency and the enormous task of reconstruction after pro-Indonesia militias went on an orgy of killing and destruction in the wake of the Aug 30 ballot that led to a vote of independence.

But a senior CNRT member said UNTAET was trying to sideline CNRT.

''The UN is a new colonial power and they're trying to marginalise us,'' said Mario Carrascalao, the leader of a CNRT contingent that accompanied a World Bank mission to East Timor recently.

Wesley-Smith agreed there was miscommunication between the UN, humanitarian agencies and CNRT.

''It's a two-way street,'' he said. ''CNRT should make its structures visible. They should attend NGO planning meetings, and in turn NGOs should invite CNRT.''

Added Wesley-Smith: ''Many Timorese have complained that the English spoken at the meetings has been too quick for them to comprehend -- so the NGO people themselves have to be sensitive to take into account these people and not make them feel marginalised.''

On Nov 19, CNRT head Xanana Gusmao met UNTAET head Sergio Vieira de Mello for a whole day.

''We needed to clear the air. There was a feeling on the part of CNRT that we were not including them, that we were not listening,'' Vieira de Mello told reporters here.

Xanana called the discussion with Vieira de Mello the beginning of a process to which he pledged his full commitment.

''We have been political activists for a long period. Now we have to get the practical skills to manage our country,'' said Xanana.

But Indonesian sociologist Dr George Aditjondro said that there was now pressure on CNRT to act as a government, even if was not yet ready for such a role.

''It's just like prematurely ripening a mango using carbide gas instead of allowing it to ripen naturally on the tree,'' said the University of Newcastle sociology lecturer, currently in East Timor researching material for his new book on the financial empire of former Indonesian president Suharto.

Added Aditjondro: ''So CNRT is beginning to function as a government. They have the self-perception that they are the government and outside bodies like UNTAET try to minimise opposition by treating them (CNRT) as such. And that's where the bureaucracy has started to creep in.''

''The point is how CNRT, currently led by an elite group that had been away from the country for the past 24 years, is going to develop a government based on Timorese culture at the grassroots where the local headman or 'liurais' play a big part,'' asked Aditjondro, whose writings on East Timor had earned him the wrath of the Suharto government.

Meantime, Aditjondro expressed alarm that food aid was being politicised.

''This is coming back to the old 'cargo cult' in many indigenous societies because if you have the cargo, you can create a dependency of the people on you -- thereby the cargo will be translated into political power,'' he said.

Last week Xanana embarked on a tour of East Timor, visiting its devastated villages. It was a chance for the people to see their idolised guerrilla leader in the flesh and at the same time tell him their problems. His message has been for them not to rely on international aid, but to take up the challenge of rebuilding their towns and villages themselves.

''CNRT has got a potential to be an excellent organisation but someone has to squash any notions of overbearing demagoguery. CNRT has to be like any democratic government serving the people -- if there's a problem then Xanana has to deal with it pretty quickly,'' said Wesley-Smith. (END/IPS/ap-dv-ip/si/js/99)

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