Small disasters with no voice are important too

Timor-Leste

November 2, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Paul Jeffery/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Paul Jeffery/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jim Jarvie/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Jim Jarvie/Mercy Corps

In Timor-Leste (East Timor), this year’s weather has caused more serious problems than ever encountered in living memory and beyond. The dry season was meant to start last March. That should have signaled the start of a planting and harvest season through to now in November, when the wet season would augur the next crop season. Except the dry season never arrived. It’s rained.

We went to speak to farmers in dire straits in the remote area of Same, in the south of the world’s newest nation, one of the poorest countries in the world with half the population living on less that US$ 1 a day.

The charity and kindness that those in real need show to guests never ceases to amaze in this work, and our hosts in the fields, among their grass-thatched houses without power, clean water or incomes was no exception. A leading local farmer, Donatus, described the issues.

The exceptionally prolonged and heavy rains this year caused riverine paddy fields to be washed away; driving rain destroyed crops; one whole planting season was missed; flash floods drowning ruining property; the wasting of important root crops like cassava and yam in the soil; stored crops rotting away in the humid air; coffee not producing and landslides destroying swathes of orchard. "At least we have bananas’, his wife laughed, "they’re doing alright." Her family — her kids catching our eyes as they play in the mud — is living on the surviving cassava and banana, as well as the odd chicken and pig — but it’s not enough.

We talk with the grandparents. In their memory, there is no recollection of a weather disaster like this. They also can’t remember their grandparents, whose memories include the Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesian occupations, mentioning anything similar.

In a typical year, this family and their neighbors make some money on a rolling basis from excess maize, rice and coffee. They spend it on senior high school enrollment for the brighter children, medical needs including visits to the clinic and drugs, little luxuries and maybe some extra airtime for the family cell phone. But this year there is no income. No one is starving yet, but they have entered waktu laparan — a time of hunger, malnutrition and potential weakness — and there is no buffer to anything going wrong.

Normally, families prepare for up to two months of limited food in January and February between harvests, but this year the exceptional weather has meant they have already been suffering from lack of food for several months, with the next harvest still four months away if they are lucky. The Donatus family and other farmers we met do not know how they will cope. And if the weather is as appalling next year, these most vulnerable of people will spiral down even further.

To exacerbate the problem, the roads that link these vulnerable communities with the capital city, Dili, are crumbling down the steep slopes as excessive water slides the roads sometimes down hundreds of feet, into gullies. There is little to no support for these weakening families in increasing isolation. And they have little voice.

Donatus apologized for not having coffee to offer, yet his friend climbed 60 feet to the top of a coconut tree so we could drink fresh coconut milk to show hospitality; like the bananas, coconuts are surviving the season, but the climb to harvest them looks unbearably risky.

This is a chronic, weather related disaster. Is it caused by climate change? There is no way to say, but climate models predict that these types of events are going to become increasingly evident. What’s needed is to build agricultural weather-resilience for farmers and their communities. Given the pace of development in Timor, poverty is going to be here for a long time; this is no time to let people sink further into vulnerability and exposure to hazards.

Their president recognizes this. President Ramos Horta, during a recent speech at the UN in New York, highlighted climate change and changing weather patterns as one of the major impediments to development in Timor-Leste and the region. There’s a risk that with massive disasters as suffered by the millions in Pakistan, or the sudden disasters as just suffered in the Mentawai islands of Indonesia, that his voice will not be heard. But it’s important.

Mercy Corps, like our peer agencies, is seeing more and more the increased suffering of those without voices across the world including Donatus’ family. We have to recognize them, continue to help them stand on their own feet and lobby for government, media and the large donor agencies to pay attention to making them resilient to the weather events of now — and the likely-worsening effects of climate change that could bite ever harder in years to come.