Govt jeopardising country’s rice reserves says analyst

Dili, 9 May (AKI) – The government’s attempt to hold on to power is dangerously depleting the country’s reserve of rice and could lead to social disorder, claimed an analyst.

Loro Horta said prime minister Xanana Gusmao should immediately create a more effective food distribution system and change the way he is managing the emergency stock of rice.

Gusmao’s decision to distribute 35 kilogrammes of rice every month to the country’s 3,700 military and police personnel and its 17,000 public servants, is a sign of “incompetence and irresponsibility,” Horta argued an analysis for the ‘International Relations and Security Network’ website.

East Timor, one of Asia’s poorest nations, relies on imports to meet almost 60 percent of its rice needs.

Horta said the government’s decision is “aimed at holding on to power” but is depleting the national rice emergency stock and “has increased the country’s vulnerability to the volatility of international markets.”

To the list of the government mistakes, Loro Horta added the granting of rice import monopolies to well-connected people, “such as, in one instance, the wife of a government minister who now directs all rice imports into the country.”

The government said that it would draw on the two billion dollars deposited in an American bank to ensure there is enough rice for the the country’s one million people. The so-called Oil Fund was created to save money for future generations of Timorese to prevent funds being squandered.

Rice prices have almost trebled this year in Asia. Countries including India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brazil have restricted food exports in a bid to secure domestic supplies and limit inflation, but such moves have helped fuel price rises.

The price of rice has already risen dramatically in the former Portuguese colony. In February, a 35-kilogramme bag of rice was being sold in East Timor for 13 dollars. By April, the price had risen to 20 dollars.

“In the rural areas, high transport costs resulting from the country’s dismal roads has led prices there to reach 27 dollars per 35-kilogramme bag of rice,” said Loro Horta.

East Timor’s average annual rice consumption is between 90,000-100,000 tonnes, while the national rice stock currently stands at less than half the desired safety level of 8,000 tonnes and just enough to feed the country for a month

Skirmishes broke out repeatedly among East Timorese during the acute rice shortages in 2007 in the capital Dili.

“There is no reason to think the same will not happen again,” Horta concluded.

He is a research associate fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the son of East Timor’s president Jose Ramos-Horta.

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