A million dollar view in impoverished East Timor

AlertNet Blogs

30 Jul 2008 13:16:00 GMT

Written by: Katie Chalk

Every morning, when Madalena opens her front door, she is faced with what has to be one of the most beautiful views on earth. High in the mountain ranges of Lequidoe, East Timor, she watches the sun spill over countless unspoilt peaks, with distant mists dissolving into a sky of impossible blue.

When I mention how much land like hers would be worth in my home country of Australia, she looks at me as though I am an idiot. Or tactless. Or both.

A widow with no regular source of income, Madalena may have a better grasp on economic realities than I do. She does not think of her view as a marketable entity. The beauty of her surroundings cannot help her to feed her children.

The basic rules of economic growth are simple. If people want something, then it is worth something. If they will pay more for it, then it is worth more. The expectation of profit is integral in transactions, but if the price is too high, people will stop buying it, at which stage the price will fall.

But recently, something has gone horribly wrong with these rules. The growing gap between rich and poor has seen the wealthy agree to buy global commodities at rates that push them beyond the reach of communities living in poverty.

This phenomenon has been dubbed the global food crisis. In Asia, it may as well be called the rice crisis. Thais and Cambodians don’t ask if you have eaten; they ask if you have “had your rice.”

It doesn’t need to be jasmine or basmati – throughout the continent, from tropical Malaysia through to wintry China, the measure of a family’s food security is their ability to purchase and lug home their own 25 kg (55 pound) bag of basic and beloved white goodness.

In the last year, prices for rice have risen in every country in the region, in some cases by 100 percent or more. A variety of economic justifications can be made – rising cost of fuel, decline of the U.S. dollar, an emphasis on exporting over local market supply, reduced agriculture industries, low harvests due to natural disaster.

But none of that means much to people like Madalena. She used to be able to buy a little rice to put on her table each day. Now, ashamed, she says her family eats rice once a week.

“I try to feed my children three times a day,” she says, “but they don’t get rice very often.”

The sting in all this is that rice is an introduced dependency in East Timor, its roots in a former wave of economic colonisation that pushed out traditional food crops like beans, maize and cassava, despite the land and irrigation requirements of growing rice successfully.

East Timor grows some rice, but nothing near enough to be sustainable. Most of the rice in Dili markets is imported from Indonesia and ranges in price as well as quality. It’s slightly more expensive in remote Lequidoe because the cost of transport needs to be covered.

It’s not even particularly nutritious. Children growing up in poor rice-based communities can suffer malnourishment because rice is pure carbohydrate, without vitamins or protein. Purchased, processed rice even lacks the healthy fibre present in its cruder form.

Madalena would be better off returning to local crops of organic, healthy, fresh vegetables, but a rice-driven cash economy has now become a way of life. Even up here.

The capacity for residents of Lequidoe to earn money is a fundamental challenge. There are no jobs around here. The ground is rocky and lack of irrigation infrastructure means only one harvest a year. Most families have a small plot of land where they grow cassava, corn and a few greens. They hope for a good enough yield to sell some at market, the only chance they have for cash.

Madalena has given up on farming her land. She is not strong enough to do it alone. She survives by selling the oranges from one tree, and every couple of years a calf from her one cow.

Madalena’s children mainly eat steamed cassava, donated by her farming neighbours. Her youngest daughter Dilsia, 5, is “moderately” malnourished, though (revealingly in this land of large families) her condition has improved since three of her older siblings moved away from home to go to school in a nearby town. With less competition for food, she is getting a fairer share.

This is good news for Madalena, who has been worried, not just about Dilsia’s health, but also about how to find money for medicine and the food she knows Dilsia needs.

She and Dilsia have been attending classes at a nutrition post set up by World Vision to monitor and improve children’s health in this village. She makes sure they go to the cooking class whenever it is on; she learns about local ingredients she can add to cassava or rice to make it more nutritious, and Dilsia enjoys the food they prepare together.

At home, she tries to make the same dishes, measuring out her dwindling rice supply carefully. Six months ago she bought a sack for $18. When she went back recently the same sack was $25 – more than Madalena is able to earn in a month.

A kilogram of rice in Australia, locally grown or maybe imported from a high-export Asian country like Vietnam or Thailand, costs two to three times as much as it would in East Timor. But the average wage in Australia is just under $200 a day. In East Timor, where jobs are scarce and farming difficult, 40 percent of people earn 55 cents or less. This makes a kilogram of rice the equivalent of more than a day’s wage.

Would I pay $200 for a kilo of rice? Unlikely. Instead I would protest and write letters and join movements, citing my rights, to end an illogical inflation beyond any possible sustainability of economy. But the world’s poor have never thought of themselves as powerful consumers; there are no food riots in this quiet, malnourished, struggling village.

I ask Madalena how she has managed alone to survive, keep her children clothed, fed and in school.

“We have found it very hard,” she says. “Every day is a challenge. But I am not really alone. My neighbours have supported me a lot.

“I send my children to school because it is something for them to do. What they do in the future is up to them, and their education will help. But I think they will find it hard to be anything but farmers – there is nothing else to do here.”

I look again at the breathtaking view. It looks like a land of plenty – chickens chase their mother hens into the bushes, a goat with her kid bleats and rears by the side of the dirt road. Madalena’s orange tree is heavy with fruit.

But none of it is destined for her table. So far down in the economic hierarchy that nobody can even see her, she still thinks of it all in terms of cash. She would rather have the money that the chickens are worth, so that she can buy what she needs – medicine, house repairs, clothes for her children, and most importantly, three meals a day for her malnourished Dilsia.

Blogged by Katie Chalk
Katie Chalk is an Australian communicator who has been working for World Vision since 2002, moving to the Asia-Pacific office in 2006 to assist with reporting on issues and events relevant to World Vision’s work in the region. As well as supporting national communications teams to collect and share stories and images, she writes opinion for websites and regional media. Katie is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


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