FAO GLOBAL INFORMATION AND EARLY WARNING SYSTEM ON FOOD AND AGRICULTURE

SPECIAL ALERT No. 295

EAST TIMOR

(Circulated only for countries where foodcrops or supply situation conditions give rise to concern)

Date: 14 September 1999

GRAVE HUMANITARIAN AND FOOD CRISIS DEVELOPING IN EAST TIMOR

The lives and food security of large numbers of displaced people have been seriously threatened by escalating civil unrest and killings in East Timor. The current wave of violence intensified after the majority of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia in a referendum on 30 August 1999.

Notwithstanding intense international pressure to end the violence and deploy a United Nations peace keeping force, large numbers of the population continue to be systematically assassinated by armed malitia, whilst hundreds of thousands are fleeing to hills and forests to seek refuge. Although the numbers affected are changing fast, current estimates put the number of deaths at 7 000 in addition to around 100 000 who have been forcibly relocated to West Timor. Overall, between 300 000 - 400 000 people have been internally displaced. An estimated 31 000 refugees are located at a camp in Dare, south of the capital Dili, whilst a further 40 000 are at a camp in Baucau the second largest city. Around 1 300 refugees and 80 UN core staff have been evacuated from the UN compound in Dili, to Northern Australia, amidst growing fears over their safety. The fate of thousands more is unknown.

The crisis has left more than a quarter of the population, of around 900 000, cut off from food supplies and drinking water and at risk of starvation. As widespread concerns over their precarious situation mount, there is urgent need for international food and humanitarian assistance. In spite of the need for such assistance, the security situation remains dangerous, preventing urgent food and medical supplies from being transported to areas and population groups in dire need. Earlier civil disturbances between 1977-1979, following forced re-location of the local population, also led to large scale food shortages, which resulted in large numbers of deaths.

The situation has deteriorated rapidly due to the upsurge in violence in the last few days, which has necessitated the evacuation of some 500 international staff of UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations. A number of staff of aid agencies have also been killed. Even if the security situation improves immediately the logistics of moving humanitarian assistance will be problematic, due to difficult terrain and a break down in transport and communications systems. Various UN and other international aid agencies have begun a desperate race to get food and water to the most vulnerable, especially women and children, and are considering urgent air drops in view of the security situation.

East Timor has an area of around 14 900 square kilometers with a population density of around 60 people/sq km. Relatively, the region's economy and its agriculture sector remain poorly developed and largely dependent on maize and rice production. Maize yields are around 1.8 tonnes per hectare compared to between 2 and 2.5 tonnes/ha on adjacent islands. Paddy yields, at between 2.5 and 2.7 tonnes/ha, are also lower than other rice producing areas in close proximity, where yields are around 4 to 4.5 tonnes/ha. In recent years the area under sago palm has been expanding, to meet subsistence needs and increase household food security. This, however, has been at the expense of oil palm cultivation.

Overall, with the exception of the 1995-96 season, most of 1990s have also been marked by unfavourable weather conditions, which had already placed a heavy burden on the majority of small holder farmers. In recent years, the province produced an average of about 100 000 tonnes of maize and 50 000 tonnes of paddy in addition to small quantities of groundnut and soya beans. Normally, to meet food needs, the population also relies on other economic activities such as fishing, rearing and selling livestock and wage labour on construction programmes. The food situation in the region had already been tight following serious El Niño-related drought in 1998, which significantly reduced cereal production (by around 40 percent) and farm stocks. Efforts at assessing and providing rehabilitation needs (seeds and fertilizer) in the aftermath of last years drought were also hampered by security concerns.

Although the precise number of vulnerable people and food needs cannot be determined at this stage, there is little doubt that large scale food and agricultural rehabilitation assistance will be needed as soon as the security situation improves to allow humanitarian operations. Such assistance is likely to be required for the remainder of 1999 and possibly through next year. The situation, therefore, needs to be monitored closely.

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO Secretariat with information from official and unofficial sources. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact Mr. Abdur Rashid, Chief, ESCG, FAO, (Fax: 0039-06-5705-4495, E-Mail (INTERNET): GIEWS1@FAO.ORG) for further information if required.

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