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Right to food in Timor-Leste

In the poorest country of Asia , Timor-Leste, hunger is a daily reality for many people. Half of the country's children are chronically malnourished. While rising food prices threaten to deteriorate the situation, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) works in monitoring and advocating their right to adequate food.

Workers unload bags of rice for distribution to Internally Displaced Persons, under a national recovery strategy. © UN Photo/Martine PerretAlmost 80% of the Timorese rely on the agricultural sector as both a source of food and income. However, nearly half of them have been described as “food insecure” by the World Food Programme.

In 2008, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Country Team UNCT in Timor-Leste decided to monitor the right to food in all 13 Districts of the country. They interviewed members of the public, local government officials, teachers and medical workers and kept track of the price of rice and the variety of food on offer in local shops.

 

They found that the current Government policy to boost production is focused on lowland areas. Subsidized rice and other aid provided by government and civil society hardly reach remote mountainous areas.

The observations of OHCHR and UNCT resulted in a report on the Right to Food in Timor-Leste, which outlines the dire situation of many people in rural areas and recommends several Government agencies to take action.

The report states that domestic demand especially for the staple food rice can still not be met by local supply. The Government has to rely heavily on food aid to feed its population. But a weak infrastructure, lack of roads to connect villages and local markets and competition between producers and imports and food aid pose major obstacles to the fulfillment of the right to adequate food.

Climate change and natural disasters harm the agricultural sector in Timor-Leste. Only 11 per cent of the land is arable and farmers lack the means to efficiently irrigate their soils and to tackle diseases in crops and animals such as avian influenza. Unresolved property rights issues hinder farmers from fully using their land.

“Full realization of the right to food in Timor-Leste remains a challenge complicated by climate, erosion, poor infrastructure and lack of knowledge about nutrition, among other factors, but progressive realization of this vital human right for all men, women and children is possible with continued commitment by the Government, development partners and people of Timor-Leste,” says Louis Gentile, Head of Human Rights Section of the UN Office in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).

The global increase in food prices has further worsened the situation for the Timorese. Food has become even less accessible to the most vulnerable. In some districts, people have switched to other less preferred products including food collected from nearby forests.

The report recognizes that there have been significant efforts to diversify people's diet, to meet the nutritional needs of children and pregnant women and to minimize malnourishment. But it also recommends that the Government review the impact of food insecurity and act against hunger in all districts, particularly in rural areas.

While many Timorese are still waiting for a drop in food prices and a better accessibility of food, OHCHR Timor-Leste continues to monitor the situation and encourages the Government to take necessary legislative steps to improve the situation. Currently, a crop and food availability exercise involving Government, UN Agencies and NGO is carried out to estimate the current food security situation in the six most vulnerable districts.

"OHCHR stands ready to work with other interested partners in the key 2009 national priority working groups on rural development and food security to help promote a rights based approach to the realization of the right to food, to ensure that practical measures and resources are dedicated to these national priorities, particularly for those most vulnerable to food insecurity and a consequent denial of the three core elements of their right to food, namely availability, accessibility and adequacy," says Louis Gentile.

January 2009