At a glance
Timor-Leste became the first newly-independent state of the 21st century on 20 May 2002. Since its independence Timor-Leste has faced the formidable challenge of building a sustainable civil society and associated political infrastructure founded on democratic principles while simultaneously building a sustainable economy.
There has been considerable progress, but there is still much to be done. The economy is still highly dependent on oil revenues, which are declining. The nation’s export base is very narrow being dominated by oil, coffee and tourism . The domestic economy needs to be modernised and broadened. Public spending accounts for over half of national spending.
Poverty rates are high and concentrated in rural areas. While 41.8% of the total population is in poverty, in rural areas the figure is 47.1% . Almost 70% of the population lives in rural areas. In 2018 Timor-Leste ranked 132nd in the UN Human Development Index (out of 189 11 countries). A core contributor to both of these outcomes is agriculture. It is a major source of employment (over 50% in 2018), but productivity is relatively low which further embeds poverty. National agricultural production targets are regularly not met and many basic food items are imported (including staples such as rice).
There are multiple levels of authority and structures of power that extend from local systems of governance through to those typically associated with modern state formation, including the nation’s constitution. For women, there are many power imbalances to address as part of everyday life and often steep economic inequity . Timor-Leste has a score of 0.855 on Gender Equality Index for year 2017.
Timor-Leste is food insecure. The 2018 Global Hunger Index categorises Timor-Leste as suffering from a ‘serious’ level of hunger (malnutrition) . As the World Bank recently pointed out, ‘about 46 percent of children under the age of 5 are stunted and suffering from chronic malnutrition – one of the highest values in the world – which is estimated to induce economic losses equivalent to 2 percent of GDP per year.’
The rural communities with the exclusion of a few zones of production (rice, coffee, candlenuts, and horticulture) are consuming what they produce and in many cases pensions to veterans paid by the Government and remittances are supporting the local economy. Many subsistence households experience annual food shortages, largely due to poor agricultural productivity and insufficient output to last the year. Climate variability worsens shortages and severely impacts household food security accelerating the degradation of natural resources and increasing the probability of natural disasters (e.g. landslides and flash floods), as well as of internal conflicts over resources.
Climate change will continue to place pressure on Timor-Leste’s food security. By 2050 temperatures are predicted to rise by up to 1.5 degrees, average annual rainfall will increase by up to 10%, extreme rainfall events will be less frequent but more severe, sea temperatures will rise by 0.6%-0.8%, and sea levels will rise by between150-340mm .Sea level has risen at about 5.5mm-9.0mm/year and will continue increase - which threatens coastal infrastructure and cities. Potential areas for the establishment of new agricultural areas (expansion) will become more limited. Increasing cropping intensity will be more difficult without supporting irrigation water. The drier area on the northern coast of the country will expand in the future. In some areas there, even planting crops once a year is not possible.Additionally, the population is expected to reach three million while major population centres, including the capital Dili, remain exposed by being located directly on the coast.
Deforestation is a major contributor to these problems. The Asian Development Bank explains the situation this way, ‘Timor-Leste has experienced massive deforestation; estimates of clearing of original forest cover are as high as 90%. Most land shows evidence of clearing, especially slash-and-burn cultivation, harvesting of firewood , coffee growing, and grazing, even on steep slopes. Forest cover has steadily declined since the 1970s and the current deforestation rate is thought to be about 1.3% per annum. A major driver is conversion of forest to agricultural land.’
Special Report 15 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - IPCC (October 2018) affirms that afforestation and reforestation are some of the key short-term actions required to capture carbon from the atmosphere. The report goes on to say that forests can contribute up-to a 30% reduction in carbon emissions.
There have been many attempts by the Government supported by the international community to raise agriculture productivity and improve nutrition, but these still remain at low levels. A recent World Bank report shows that where forest cover loss is greater, poverty rates are also greater.