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Timor Leste: Oil Revenue Fails to Address Child Stunting

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By Annamarie Reyes

DILI, Timor Leste (IDN) — The world’s newest democracy of Timor Leste is currently confronting a surge of omicron cases after being one of the safest countries from Covid. But as it continues to manage the pandemic fairly well, the story is quite the opposite when it comes to the problem of child stunting. (P30) INDONESIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | PORTUGUESE | SPANISH

The issue continues to haunt Timor Leste decades after gaining independence, with a rate of 53-57% of child stunting among its under 5-year-old children.

“Lack of proper nutrition has consequences for Timorese children’s future health, education, productivity and capacity,” says the Dili-based agency La’o Hamutuk—Timor Leste’s Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis. They believe Timorese children do not have access to enough nutritious food and hence this has a grave impact on the next generation.

Their own analysis states: “This situation is complex and not easy to resolve. The availability of nutritious food is exacerbated because agricultural production is not a national priority, and by the prohibitive cost of nutritious foods.”

The latest report from the Global Hunger Index (GHI), indicates that Timor Leste has a level of hunger that is “alarming” just one step under “extremely alarming” on the world ladder.

Among 107 countries surveyed Timor Leste sits at 106, requiring urgent action, with only one nation—Chad—facing a more grave situation. The World Food Programme’s estimate also points to 1-2% of GDP lost to malnutrition every year, among a population of 1.3 million people.

< Credit: Charles Scheiner 

“It’s not just about severe malnutrition; our children suffer from diarrhoea, and have no proper access to water and sanitation,” La’o Hamutuk’s  Researcher of Economy and State Finance, Eliziar Febes Gomes told IDN.

Timor Leste’s Demographic and Health Survey 2016 shows only 50% of households have access to improved sanitation facilities and only 58% of people in rural areas have access to potable water in or close to their homes.

Child stunting is often a result of inadequate food consumption in terms of quantity and quality and would usually be happening over a long period of time. In Timor Leste, the problem would have begun as early as among child-bearing age women and men; who in the first place grew up undernourished or malnourished from the previous generation.

Timor people’s chronic inadequate food consumption has been linked to low agricultural productivity, scarce livelihood sources, poor sanitation, water, irrigation, health and infrastructures systems as well as poor long-term financial security.

Young Timorese speaking out

La’o Hamutuk’s concerns for the country’s children and young people is reflected in the daily lives of many young Timorese.

Tichya Gusmao whose family hails from surviving by tilling the land in the districts (Timor’s rural area) is trying to do her bit. “I have joined a horticultural activity in our village, where I will share what I have learnt about nutrition and agriculture with my community to help fix our young people’s problem with food,” she told IDN.

On the other side of Dili, in far-flung Viqueque, Elzita struggled for a while to find a computer so she could complete her school assignment. “When it’s hard, we only eat what we have on the farm. My parents get income by selling fruits and vegetables in the market. I’m learning about maternal health and want to help our young people take care of our children and new-born.”

Ade wants to become a veterinarian and is an intern with an animal clinic. He says that his family’s main source of income is agricultural production. “But the problem in Timor Leste is that this sector has poor income. He wants the government to help young people with basic necessities and not totally rely on petroleum oil reserves as “it will end anytime.”

Similar sentiments are what’s in the future horizons for Eugenia and Leao.

Eugenia is active in her local centre for youth in the Southern Bacau district, “As a young woman I want to always look into how I can contribute to helping others and not just stay at home.” Leao Carvalho is juggling volunteering between nutrition and youth civic work. “We need to empower our communities to make our land more productive.”

All of them are in their 20’s reflecting the predominantly young population of Timor Leste with the average adult population age at 35 years old.

According to the latest Integrated Food Security Classification (IPC) report to 2023, “climate risks and hazards” have also played a serious role. In April 2021, the country suffered a devastating super typhoon where homes, services, buildings and roads were completely damaged. More than 13,000 people were displaced, 44,000 households were affected and 50 people died from the cyclone Seroja.

Meanwhile, the toll from the pandemic with the latest 156 cases, has compounded the problem. Just under 20,000 people had tested positive to Covid in 2021.

Oil and gas reserves depleting

Charles Scheiner, Researcher at La’o Hamutuk has authored a report which raises concern about Timor Leste’s heavy reliance on extractive resources of oil and gas.

“Timor Leste is one of the most petroleum-dependent countries in the world in terms of export revenues from oil and gas. But it’s not because it has a lot of oil and gas, it’s because it has very few other kinds of resources. So, money from oil and gas has paid for 86%, the great majority of state spending over the last 20 years. For example, the schools’ systems and many other things that benefit children, such as with nutrition programs—even though they’re not as good as we hope they would be,” says Scheiner.

According to Scheiner, Timor Leste’s predominantly young population were mostly born after the Indonesian occupation ended 21 years ago. But most live in rural areas growing up with inadequate food, education, health support, with few employment prospects.

Only a quarter of the 820,000 working-age people are in the formal economy: mostly in construction and public administration. In jobs in Dili, related to the oil and gas industry. The rest of majority of the population rely on informal work in agriculture, farming or fishing.

There have been little benefits from the oil and gas reserves for the majority of the population. “For the 10-15 per cent of the middle class and upper-class people, their lives have significantly improved,” notes Scheiner. “But if you measure more than 40% of people who are in poverty, their lives have not changed very much”.

The money the government has spent has either gone to pay civil servants, or infrastructure offices for government buildings, in Dili, that helps the more affluent people. Civil servants are considered upper class.

But the great majority of Timorese are subsistence farmers, and they haven’t spent much on them. “More than half of the money the government has spent has gone outside the country—to import things or pay for foreign companies to implement projects,” says Scheiner.

La’o Hamutuk’s has pointed out through their own investigations that non-renewable resources are depleting, and also very expensive to produce, where investors may find they’re no longer economical to produce. The resource boom around 2005-12 where 23 US billion dollars were generated have run out.

Currently, the country’s 86% of state spending comes from its petroleum oil reserves and at the rate of its extraction oil and gas could run out in a few years. The main exploration site Bayu-Undan has almost depleted any viable resources left.

“There have been 2 test wells that were drilled a few months ago. One onshore in Timor Leste’s territory, the first onshore well in 50 years. And one offshore in a field that a small Australian company is running. They thought there was more oil to get out there. They both turn out to be non – commercial.  The companies have decided not to continue,” Scheiner points out.

Meanwhile, Gomes laments the fact that despite their lobbying for decades now, the problem of child stunting from malnutrition remains unsolved. “When the government is not wisely spending the money, we really worry about our future. These big (infrastructure) projects could also be a risk to our social economy and our environment,” she argues.

“I can say that Timor Leste for the last 2-3 years has been in an uncertain political situation. It means that the government has not been putting our people as the centre of their decision making, but only their own interests,” explains Gomes.

With a national election coming up soon, Gomes hopes, “Timorese young people will choose a good leader (who is) more concerned about our reality. I believe that if (such a new) government puts the people of Timor Leste as the centre of decision-making, we can solve our child stunting problem and will prepare our future generations (for a better life).”

Timor Leste’s Presidential elections are scheduled for March 19, 2022. [IDN-InDepthNews — 11 February 2022]

Photo: Women travel long distances to get water in a single pump in Batugade, Bobonaro, Timor Leste. Credit: Annamarie Reyes





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