East Timor: Protests call for food sovereignty

Annolies Truman, International News, Green Left Weekly, 25 October 2007 

Two thousand people rallied in the East Timorese capital of Dili on October 17 to demand food sovereignty for East Timor. The demonstration was the culmination of three days of activities to mark World Food Day.

The majority of the demonstrators were university students who joined farmers from different districts and sub-districts. Protesters marched to Parliament House and Government House, taking MPs and government officials by surprise.

The protesters continued on to the ministry of agriculture building, which a delegation of farmers’ representatives entered to present their demands to the minister. These included increasing production and supply of food through sustainable agriculture and government policies prioritising community autonomy, environmental stewardship and cultural integrity. The demonstration was organised by HASATIL (Strengthen Sustainable Agriculture in Timor Leste), a network comprised of 27 local NGOs and farmer groups. It advocates for farmers’ rights and sustainable agricultural practices.

HASATIL’s representative in Australia, Ego Lemos, told Green Left Weekly that the demonstration was a success. “A lot of people are very enthusiastic and impressed with the action”, Lemos said. “The number of demonstrators was significant and they represent the thinking of a large section of Timor’s population. Eighty per cent of the population’s livelihood is based on agriculture. They want government agricultural policies that will benefit small farmers and not hurt the environment.

“We are already alarmed at the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism on our agricultural system.”
East Timor was colonised first by Portugal and then Indonesia. Traditional agriculture, comprised of a variety of root crops and leafy vegetables, was partially replaced during the period of Indonesian rule by large areas of rice monoculture.

Lemos explained that soil and water pollution have been increasing since Indonesia introduced high-chemical- input farming methods, leading to pest resurgence and rising livestock and crop losses.

“Since independence, farmers have been increasingly forced to compete in a free market economy. Farmers are becoming more dependent on external inputs, leading to less available income”, he said.

With cheap agricultural imports from Australia and Indonesia growing annually, demand for local, more expensive produce is decreasing.

Lemos told GLW that large multinational corporations have been introducing genetically modified crops under the guise of research institutions, such as the International Research Rice Institute and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

“There have been GM trials of Bt corn [corn modified to incorporate herbicide- and insect-resistant traits], for example. The corporations claim these are for research purposes, but there is no regulation; the government is weak. It is 100% possible to grow these crops commercially.”

An official event took place in Dili on October 16, organised by the government and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). World Food Day originated in 1945 to highlight access to food as a basic human right. However, since the event was launched, the number of people unable to regularly access sufficient, nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable food has grown.

According to Chana Opaskornkvl, Dili’s FAO chief, some 850 million people worldwide are going to bed hungry every night.

Speaking at the October 16 event, Opaskornkvl emphasised that “the right to feed oneself in dignity, rather than the right to be fed” ­ highlighting a major issue in East Timor and across the underdeveloped world.

According to Lemos, food has been coming into East Timor as so-called “aid” with the ulterior purpose of creating dependency on foreign imports.

“Fifty per cent of Timorese are still functionally illiterate, most of them living in rural areas. This combined with the poverty and dependency of our country makes our nation more vulnerable to exploitation by multinational companies.”

President Jose Ramos-Horta gave a speech at the official event stressing market-oriented production. He recommended the government invest in road projects and other transportation infrastructure for farmers to access markets. Ramos-Horta also stated that East Timor will borrow money from International Monetary Fund (IMF) to develop the country. Protesters displayed banners with anti-World Trade Organisation messages, promoting local food and claiming food sovereignty is the way to resolve hunger and poverty.

Lemos stated, “The government is keen on developing the country by borrowing money from the IMF and encouraging agri-businesses to invest in Timor Leste. This is really against our principles. We want people-centred and sustainable development.”

In contrast to the official “celebrations”, HASATIL marked World Food Day with three days of activities throughout East Timor, including seminars and workshops focusing on food as a human rights issue, as well as the protests.