8. COVID-19 and food systems in Timor-Leste

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Professor Andrew McWilliam
School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University

8.1 Abstract

As the people of Timor-Leste continue the process of post-Independence nation building, there remain multiple development challenges along the pathway to prosperity. They include continuing poverty and rural–urban inequalities across multiple indicators of disadvantage. The financial benefits that have flowed from the sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund provide important support for essential services and infrastructure as well as a range of social transfers to ameliorate the harsher aspects of poverty. The first case of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste was recorded on 21 March 2020. The government declared a state of emergency, closing the international borders and restricting all but essential internal movement. Early measures proved effective, with just 24 recorded cases and no deaths, but the nation remains ill-equipped to cope with a major new outbreak of the pandemic.

Economic impacts were immediate and widespread, especially among informal employment sector workers, as market trading, retail shops, transport and hospitality businesses were shut down, along with the tourism sector. The government responded with a range of emergency distributions of cash (US$200) to over 300,000 households, supported by food relief distributions from non-government organisations, the church and extended familial networks.

Proposed opportunities include:

  • improved social protection measures for vulnerable households
  • a renewed focus on the productivity of smallholder agriculture with gradual intensification and improved feed and biosecurity regimes
  • greater efforts to expand private-sector market developments and increased employment
  • greater focus on education and relevant technical training to increase the availability of skilled graduates.

8.2 COVID-19 in Timor-Leste

8.2.1 Country overview (July 2020)


8.2.2 Development context

An overview of Timor-Leste’s agricultural, fisheries and nutrition context is shown in Table 8.1. Today in Timor-Leste, around 915,000 people (70% of the 2020 population) live in rural areas. The great majority of these people derive their incomes from semi-subsistence and seasonal food cropping, mixed with small-scale animal husbandry and varying degrees of foraging for wild crops and game.

Despite improvements in a range of essential services, there is a high prevalence of poverty, with 42% of the population living on less than US$2 per day (UNICEF 2018). There is accompanying illiteracy, especially among women, and infant stunting rates are among the highest in the world (GDS, Ministry of Health & ICF 2018, Gorton 2018, Provo et al 2017). The core problem facing most Timor-Leste rural households is their inability to generate reliable incomes from agriculture and thereby improve the living conditions and livelihood opportunities of their families (Costa et al 2013).

The reasons for constrained on-farm production and productivity are complex and varied. Key drivers include:

  • highly variable weather conditions (irregular onset of monsoon, seasonal droughts, high winds, heavy rains) affecting crop establishment and subsequent yields
  • feral pigs, rats and insects causing crop losses and post-harvest storage losses
  • low-nutrient soils, steep slopes and labour constraints at critical times in the production cycle
  • low use of fertiliser inputs due to limited availability in market networks and perception of investment risks
  • some organic fertiliser use in horticulture
  • heavy reliance on other agri-inputs like seeds, day-old chicks and pesticides
  • little or no market demand for staple food crops beyond local distribution
  • high dependency on food supply imports
  • consistent national underinvestment in smallholder agriculture with budget allocations constrained to less than 2% of the national budget and late disbursement of funds.

Table 8.1 Agricultural, fisheries and nutrition context of Timor-Leste




Surface areaa

’000 km2


Agricultural landb

percentage of land area


Age of populationa

0–19 years

percentage of total population


20–39 years

percentage of total population


40–59 years

percentage of total population


over 59 years

percentage of total population


Stunting ratec

under 5 years

percentage of age group


Wasting ratec

under 5 years

percentage of age group



under 5 years

percentage of age group



percentage of total population



percentage of total population




percentage of total population



percentage of total population


Prevalence of undernourishmentc

percentage of total population


Population distributiona


percentage of total population



percentage of total population


Gross domestic product per capitaa



Adjusted net national income per capita (2018)a



Agriculture and fisheries, value addeda

percentage of gross domestic product


Government expenditure on agriculturec

percentage of total outlays


Top staples (ranked most to least)c

cereals, maize, rice, coconuts, bananas

United Nations Development Programme Human Index rankingd

out of 189


2017 World Risk Index (mean value calculation 2012–2016)e

out of 171


  1. World Bank (2020)
  2. FAO (2020a)
  3. Global Nutrition Report (2020)
  4. UNDP (2020)
  5. Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft (2017)

Source: Data collated on 10 July 2020 by Alex van der Meer Simo.

Timor-Leste has a young population with a median age of just 19.1 years (UNDP 2018a:2). Every year, 20,000 or so new entrants to the job market compete for no more than 2,000 paid positions in the formal economy (ILO 2016). The prospects for absorbing the steady stream of high school graduates and aspiring workers are poor. In a telling statistic about Timor-Leste’s working-age population (15–64 years), which amounts to over 660,000 people, 42% are classified as ‘unemployed, unpaid household workers, informal labour, retired, or not seeking work’ (Scheiner 2015). The absence of manufacturing and a limited private-sector presence means that just 5% of the workforce is employed in the private-sector. This drops to 2.4% in rural areas (GDS, Ministry of Health & ICF 2018, UNDP 2018a:2). One response is a growing youthful international labour migration sector that generates significant remittance flows (more than $US40 million per annum in 2017) (Curtain 2018).

The structure of governance in Timor-Leste is based on a democratic semi-presidential system with an elected national parliament and the prime minister (McWilliam & Leach 2019). There are 13 constituent municipalities with limited budgets and administrative capacity. Subdistricts (postu) and villages (suku) provide local-level governance, much of which is strongly influenced by limited financial support and the persistence of customary patterns of elected political authorities and land tenure systems based on ancestrally constituted kinship and marriage alliances. From January 2020, parliamentary governance has been stymied with the abstention of support for the 2020 national budget by the National Congress for Timor Reconstruction, the largest party in the ruling three-party Alliance for Change and Progress (Leach 2020). A new coalition ministry was sworn in on 25 June 2020, including a new Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries.

8.2.3 Impact of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste

The first case of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste was detected on 21 March 2020. On 28 March 2020 the national government declared a state of emergency, which was extended into June 2020. A series of lockdown measures were progressively put in place. These measures closed schools and many businesses in the informal sector, as well as the hospitality and the tourism sectors. Movement restrictions and transport services between districts (municipalities) were much reduced and the international border with Indonesian West Timor was closed.

For Timor-Leste, the dramatic health threat posed by COVID-19 has not yet materialised. As of July 2020, there have been just 24 known cases of COVID-19 in the country and all of those people have reportedly recovered. The great majority of known infected people entered the country through the Indonesian land border. No deaths or serious hospitalisations have been recorded, but the risk of an outbreak remains a serious threat, and the Timor-Leste health system is poorly equipped to handle an outbreak of any significance.

The major impact of COVID-19 has been the economic shock that has accompanied the imposition of the state of emergency, which was extended a number of times into June 2020 and resulted in a major contraction of the economy. In the immediate panic following the COVID-19 detection announcement, a large number of expatriates left the country (including Indonesian, Chinese and other nationalities) and these people have not returned. In the pandemic-induced downturn and in the absence of a 2020 national budget, the World Bank has forecast a contraction of 5% or more for the national economy in 2020, a marked reversal to the opening forecasts of 4.6% growth.

8.2.4 Local and policy responses

The Timor-Leste Government moved quickly to address the looming pandemic by establishing a COVID-19 coordination committee (Integrated Crisis Management Centre), led by the Ministry of Health and working closely with the World Health Organization and local non-government organisations. The Integrated Crisis Management Centre established hospital and testing protocols, and supplied personal protective equipment and health messaging. A referral system for testing for COVID-19 via the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia, was established and made functional with support from the Australian Embassy in Timor-Leste. Further assistance was provided by the Menzies School of Tropical Health in Darwin, Australia, supporting health delivery systems, guidelines and cooperative arrangements for strengthening the system of COVID-19 testing (Margalhães 2020).

To address the immediate and continuing economic impact on household livelihoods and incomes, the Timor-Leste Government agreed to access the sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund—valued at US$17 billion as of March 2020—and provide emergency cash payments to unemployed workers and poor households. The government secured parliamentary approval for a withdrawal of US$400 million for general spending, as well as public spending to stimulate the economy (10% of gross domestic product). The funds were drawn down in phases from 2 April 2020 (US$250 million) and fed into two key government-funded relief programs. The first program provided monthly payments of US$500 to formal employees who have lost their employment as a result of the COVID-19 impact (estimated 30,000 people). The government has also approved a measure to provide a transfer of US$15 credit covering electricity bills per electric meter, along with a planned payment of US$100 per month for three months to low-income households (estimated 318,000 households). Funds were sourced from a dedicated US$150 million COVID-19 fund approved by the national parliament and administered by the Integrated Crisis Management Centre. Initial payments were rolled out in early June, providing two months of back-dated payments of US$200 per low-income household. Reports from the districts indicate that the emergency funds have been successfully distributed but there are reports of some people who have missed out are or still waiting for support (researcher, pers comm, 6 July 2020). According to recent reports, the government will not proceed with the third planned payments (DFAT, pers comm, 24 July 2020).

The Catholic church has also been active in developing a COVID-19 response, forming a pastoral support team dedicated to providing spiritual, psychological and material support for the poor and those directly affected by the pandemic (Ora 2020). Working with Caritas, the church is providing up to six tonnes of rice, cooking oil and milk to poor families in more than 30 parishes.

In addition to these measures, a number of non-government organisations and civil society organisations have distributed food hampers (25 kg rice, eggs, oil and other basic domestic goods) to households that have lost livelihoods or need support. Up to 1,500 households in Dili and the hinterland have reportedly been provided with assistance (Monteiro, pers comm, 9 June 2020), and there are likely to be other groups in the country mobilising their resources in diverse and informal ways.

The government also approved payments (based on host country costs) to support non-scholarship Timorese students who depend exclusively on the financial support of families in Timor-Leste, and Timorese citizens who, due to the closure of the borders, were prevented from returning to Timor-Leste (Government of Timor-Leste 2020ab).

8.2.5 Other shocks and drivers of change

African swine fever

In September 2019, the highly contagious and lethal African swine fever was detected in Timor-Leste. This has had a devastating impact on local pig populations, with the death of an estimated 50,000 animals out of a national herd of 420,000 (Barnes et al 2020b; DFAT, pers comm, 2020). The absence of a vaccine for African swine fever means that the only way to limit its impact is improved animal husbandry and better hygiene practices for pig production. Given that pigs and smallholder pig production remain a vital part of the Timor-Leste livelihoods, the emergence of this new virus represents a grave threat to household economies. Pig populations are already exposed to classic swine fever, which is preventable, but vaccination rates are low in Timor-Leste and distinguishing between the two is impossible without laboratory tests.

Fall armyworm

During March 2020, new outbreaks of fall armyworm, which threatens important crops such as maize and rice, were detected. A recent Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) (2020) assessment found the prevalence of fall armyworm ranged from 2% to 14% across Timor-Leste, with the highest prevalence in Manufahi. Formally identified as Spodoptera frugiperda, the good news is that the fall armyworm attracts a high proportion (79%) of natural predators. This provides the basis for a response plan for the next cropping season and pest management training for farmers (DFAT, pers comm, 2020).

Localised flooding, dengue fever and climate change

During March 2020, there was major flooding and torrential rains in the capital city, Dili, and surrounding areas. The floods destroyed 200 houses and damaged crops that were ready for harvesting. An estimated 1,105 families and 6,000 people were adversely affected.

From January to March, the city and other urban areas were also subject to an annual outbreak of dengue fever, which causes debilitating illnesses for hundreds of people as well as deaths in a minority of cases.

Climatic variability is a long-term characteristic of Timor-Leste. Climate-change modelling predicts that over the next 30 years (to 2050) the climate will become about 1.5 °C warmer and 10% wetter on average (Molyneux et al 2012).

8.3 Assessment approach

This assessment of COVID-19 and food systems for Timor-Leste aims to present a balanced national-level review and analysis of the main impacts and constraints arising from the pandemic. It looks at health and economic impacts and responses, with a particular focus on the status of food supply and longer-term food and nutrition security. The study combines desktop assessments and analysis with a series of targeted interviews (16) and correspondence with a range of knowledgeable commentators, researchers and government officials to discuss a range of observed impacts and implications of the COVID-19 entry to Timor-Leste.

Resources included:

  • key national-level policy documents, strategic planning and emergency provisions in relation to COVID-19-related developments and supply-chain shocks
  • urban and rural support programs, including social protection distributions to poor and unemployed households
  • direct discussions with Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries staff
  • a wide range of literature and reporting on agriculture, food security, poverty and rural development studies
    • regular media reporting (Tatoli)
    • government announcements
    • program evaluations (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), World Bank, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), International Labour Organization and diverse aid agencies)
    • reports from non-government organisations (Lao Hamutuk, Asia Foundation)
    • research blog posts and commentaries from domestic and international commentators.

In addition, there was a complementary strategy to seek updated and specialised knowledge on aspects of the COVID-19 impact on different regions, sectors and resources from expert stakeholders (56% of whom were female). A range of communication was used, such as mobile and WhatsApp discussions, online questions and email responses to a range of targeted questions. There was a high degree of agreement among the respondents on the range of impacts and vulnerabilities.

8.4 Assessment results

8.4.1 Snapshot of key findings


8.4.2 Exposure and vulnerabilities

A diverse and variable range of vulnerabilities has been exposed by the arrival of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste society, both directly in relation to potential health outcomes and indirectly across diverse sectors of the national economy. The degree and duration of these vulnerabilities will depend on multiple interconnected factors and will be shaped by any subsequent outbreak of COVID-19 infections and the extent to which the pandemic continues to disrupt the Timor-Leste economy.

Health vulnerabilities

One of the major challenges for government in post-Independence Timor-Leste has been the restoration and reinvigoration of a national health system to provide high-quality medical care to all citizens. Over the last decade, there have been significant advances in the development of a national distribution of health clinics and the provision of basic preventive health care, health messaging and improved training of health practitioners. This expansion has been supported by the growing services of Cuban-trained Timorese doctors (approximately 1,000 by 2017) and postgraduate medical training at the national university, the University of Timor Lorosa’e (Asante et al 2014). Infant and child mortality rates in Timor-Leste have both declined by about one-third since 2009–10 (Kelly et al 2019). The most notable trend is malaria incidence, which fell from 32 per 1,000 individuals to virtually zero over the past five years, leaving the country poised for malaria elimination (Kelly et al 2019:11).

Despite these advances, the provision of accessible and reliable medical services, and health information3, including sexual and reproductive health services, remains patchy and thinly distributed across the country. Diagnostic and specialist medical equipment and services in regional hospitals are basic and limited. Although health care is nominally freely available, there are a range of costs and cultural barriers that limit access for the poor (Price et al 2016). In a country still grappling with the legacy of a generation of military occupation, there are very limited mental health services and trained practitioners. Most people in rural areas source healing services via a range of local traditional remedies and divinatory procedures.

Timor-Leste has managed to successfully avoid the first wave of COVID-19 infections, but it remains highly vulnerable to subsequent outbreaks and poorly equipped to handle any major increase in demand for intensive care nursing. According to the Global Health Observatory, there were just 59 hospital beds per 10,000 people across Timor-Leste (Chen 2020).

Food and material supply chains

One of the consequences of constrained in-country food production is that there is currently a reliance on significant imports of staple food supplies, especially Vietnamese rice (100,000 t per annum), that are cheaper than locally grown product and account for around 60% of consumption (Young 2013). Since 2007, there has been a growing reliance on imported frozen chicken meat and eggs, especially from Brazil (16,561 t of frozen chicken meat and 3,850 t of chicken eggs, worth $US12 million in 2018), as well as flour, sugar, palm oil and seafood from Indonesia (ADB 2019). These imports have in many cases constrained the emergence of local import substitution businesses in direct food production and processing (Rola-Rubzen et al 2011).

The absence of any real manufacturing base in Timor-Leste means that there is an extensive list of imported products and commodities (US$470 million in 2018), including palm oil, tobacco, vehicles, cement and building materials, that provide important contributions to the national economy. The only significant commodity export of any scale, apart from oil and petroleum, is Timorese Arabica coffee, which is produced by cooperative-based smallholders and generated US$20 million in 2018.

High dependence on the sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund

Timor-Leste remains one of the three most oil-dependent countries in the world. Oil and gas revenues account for 70% of gross domestic product and almost 90% of total government revenue between 2010 and 2015 (IFAD 2017). This has been a great bounty and source of financial security for the newly independent nation. However, the impact of this heavy reliance on the Petroleum Fund has created conditions for the debilitating and now-familiar distorting impacts of the resource curse (Bovensiepen 2018, Scheiner 2019). The nation remains highly dependent on the Petroleum Fund to support development programming and effective governance across the nation. The Petroleum Fund contributes a major share of annual state budgets—83% in 2017 (Scheiner 2019:93)—and is projected to continue at levels beyond the sustainable drawdown rate. The recent volatility in global markets saw the Petroleum Fund lose US$1.8 billion (10%) in value due to financial market shocks (Lusa 2020). Massive infrastructure investments by government have been criticised in the absence of persuasive analyses of the anticipated benefits (Bovensiepen 2018, Scheiner 2019). Without any new prospects for oil extraction from reserves (such as the Greater Sunrise Field in the Timor Sea), the need to diversify revenue sources away from fossil fuels is increasingly pressing (Neves 2018).

Women and gender vulnerabilities

Rural women in Timor-Leste experience low incomes and have major responsibilities for domestic work, carting water and firewood, caring for children and the sick, as well as contributing to farming, trading and purchasing in markets and the raising of livestock. Women typically have lower literacy rates (20%) than men (41%), and generate on average 15% less agricultural produce than their male farming counterparts (Gavalyugova et al 2018). The COVID-19 restrictions and shortages have increased these livelihood pressures and affect women disproportionately (FAO 2020b).

The legacy of conflict and poverty across the country has, for some time, focused attention on the entrenched culture of domestic violence in Timor-Leste. A demographic and health survey (2009–2010) found that 36% of married women had experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by a husband or partner, and just 24% of women reported the assaults. Women most often sought help from their own family (82%). Only 4% sought help from the police (JSP 2013:3, Gerry & Sjölin 2018). Women risk being rejected by their families and social networks if they involve the justice system.

Given the entrenched nature of domestic violence, the economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate existing pressures on households and perpetuate violence in the household4. The European Union and the United Nations Resident Coordinator have dedicated US$1 million from the flagship Spotlight Initiative to address the increased risks of violence against women and girls in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (UNFPA Timor-Leste 2020).

Vulnerabilities in agriculture

Seasonal crop production

Across Timor-Leste, a majority of households (more than 200,000) practice forms of seasonal rainfed agriculture focused on the cultivation of maize and beans, as well as a range of secondary food crops including cassava, sweetpotato, pumpkin, squash and diverse tubers (da Costa et al 2013). On the southern littoral, an extended wet season permits a second cropping season. Most of the harvested food is used for home consumption or local market sales.

Men and women actively pursue farming with the understanding that harvest success is dependent on highly variable monsoon weather conditions and a range of unpredictable environmental factors, including droughts, weeds, plant diseases and pests, high winds and floods, as well as post-harvest storage losses due to a combination of weevils, rats and spoilage (>30%) (da Costa et al 2013). Crop losses are common and many families experience food insecurity, particularly when household stores are exhausted and the new harvest has not been secured. Timorese refer to this period (usually December–February) as the hungry season (tempu rai hamlaha). Households are forced to rely on foraged wild foods, go into debt or sell assets to cover shortages (da Costa et al 2013, McWilliam et al 2015, Erskine et al 2020). According to one report, 62% of households experienced food shortages for more than one month (Provo et al 2017, Gorton 2018).

Food insecurity is a common experience in the hinterlands and mountains of Timor-Leste, and it contributes to the regularly reported poor nutrition and high poverty rates. A recent WFP survey found that few households (15–37%) could afford nutritious diets (WFP 2019). At the same time, generations of farming practice and the challenges this involves, including the possibility of outright crop losses, means that rural Timorese farming communities are also highly resilient in relation to the conditions they face. Vulnerability and resilience are closely related and are familiar experiences across the rural hinterlands and mountains. Many families cope with food shortages and poor nutrition on a regular basis. In a continuing COVID-19 environment, these patterns of livelihood will persist in the absence of significant new investment in productive and climate-resilient agriculture.

Irrigated rice

Irrigated rice production has been cultivated in Timor-Leste for hundreds of years, but for most of that time on a very limited scale. It was only during the late Portuguese colonial period (1960s) that greater investment was directed to irrigation infrastructure, including opening up a number of new areas. These efforts were further developed and promoted during the period of Indonesian governance (1975–99), when massive investments in irrigation infrastructure and road transport transformed farming practices and greatly extended the popularity and cultural acceptance of rice as a high-status staple food. By 1996, for the first and only time, East Timor achieved rice self-sufficiency (Fox 2001). In 1997 rice production reached more than half the tonnage of maize (Pederson & Arneberg 1998:33). In a post-Independence and COVID-19 Timor-Leste, this level of production in rice has not been sustained. Rice production has been in a long-term decline, due to a number of inter-related factors, even though rice has become the preferred staple food.

The destruction that accompanied the withdrawal of the Indonesian armed forces and the pro-Jakarta militia included substantial elements of irrigation infrastructure. Designed irrigation capacity declined by nearly 50% to around 34,649 ha (FAO 2011). In the two decades since, the remaining irrigation infrastructure and the road networks that connected production areas to markets and urban centres have also deteriorated. It is only in recent years that major investment in road and irrigation infrastructure restoration has been initiated and funded through the Petroleum Fund.

The use of fertilisers and pesticides, subsidised during the Indonesian period, have decreased significantly due to a lack of supply and the absence of private-sector traders and investors in the sector. There has also been a growing resistance among smallholder farmers to perceived investment risks. Production yields of rice have also declined from an already low base (1.6–2 t/ha) and most production is consumed or sold locally.

Consistent with trends across South-East Asia, large numbers of young people are resisting a career in smallholder rice production in favour of further education and easier and potentially more rewarding livelihoods in the towns and cities, even as youth unemployment remains a pressing problem. The result is the emergence of an ageing rural labour force (average 41 years) and labour shortages in rural areas, along with comparatively high labour costs (US$5–6 per day) and reduced areas under production.

Since 2007, with the initiation of drawdown from the Petroleum Fund, growing amounts of cheap milled rice from Vietnam are now imported and sold widely in local markets across Timor-Leste (Young 2013). The impact of importing 66% of national rice consumption demand has undermined any realistic attraction among smallholder farmers to increase rice production. When farmers cannot compete on price, there is little incentive to produce more. Young (2013) argues that the scale of imports suggest that estimates of local rice production are greatly inflated.

In the face of these multiple and systemic constraints against increased local irrigated rice production, the optimistic goal for Timor-Leste of ‘self-sufficiency in rice production by 2020’ as articulated in the Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan 2011–2030 (Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2) has failed and is unlikely to be achieved in the life of the planning document. A national agricultural census is currently being completed and is due for release during 2020. Hopefully, this will provide a more accurate assessment of local rice production and institutional support frameworks.

8.4.3 Impacts of COVID-19


As of mid-July 2020, the direct impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been minimal, with no reported cases for many weeks. This good fortune for Timor-Leste has allowed authorities to strengthen their medical protocols and facilities in readiness for any future outbreaks. However, the risk of outbreaks of COVID-19 remains high, due to the lightly patrolled land border with Indonesia and the need to maintain imports and trade arrangements. In the absence of a vaccine and effective treatments, the need to open up the economy and increase social engagement will increase the risk of a subsequent wave of infections, which could have devastating impacts and quickly overwhelm the hospital system. Despite significant investment over the last decade, the national health system has very limited diagnostic and medical expertise available. At this stage, the major impacts of COVID-19 are indirect and economic.

Informal sector employment

The declaration of a state of emergency in Timor-Leste on 28 March 2020 set in train a coordinated lockdown of international and internal borders and the general closure of schools and most businesses, which led to extensive job losses in the informal sector. This had immediate impacts across the country. The informal sector provides around 60% of employment opportunities across Timor-Leste and employs up to 250,000 people. This category of work includes seasonal agriculture and a wide range of low wage, often intermittent, remunerative employment for people including farm labourers, shop assistants, security workers, market traders, taxi and bus drivers, domestic workers and hospitality staff.

The closure of businesses, across both formal and informal sectors, along with the return of many urban residents to their home villages has had a significant impact on women’s incomes and purchasing power, as well as increased workloads for women who take the primary responsibility for raising children and managing domestic arrangements including raising animals. Some 66% of employed women are self-employed farmers.

Tourism services, which are a growing non-oil sector of the economy, have also been severely hit by border closures and the departure of many expatriates. Given the high dependency ratio in Timor-Leste (71.2% in 2019, with many people relying on fewer providers), the effect on household incomes and consumption has been rapid. Reports indicate that people who lost their employment in the city have returned to their villages of origin, where living costs are lower and support from family members is available (Barnes et al 2020a).

The loss of household incomes as a result of the emergency shutdown was a major shock and prompted the government to introduce temporary financial payments for over 300,000 households, amounting to US$100 per month for three months. These measures highlight the widespread impact of income loss, the absence of household savings and the subsequent rapid emergence of food shortages.

Food supply chains

As noted above, Timor-Leste is highly dependent on a diverse range of food supply imports. Apart from some initial concerns about securing additional shipments of rice for stockpiling, these matters have been resolved and the major food importers (Kmanek, Centro and Miemart) have been able to ensure continuity of supplies (MDF 2020). Some disruptions and delays have been caused by the closure of the land border with Indonesia. Timor-Leste custom operations have been operating for just two hours a week to process cross-border commodity flows, with predictable delays. At the start of June, 40 trucks belonging to 17 Indonesian logistics companies were waiting to bring five tonnes of food items into the country (MDF 2020). Local food supply chains, particularly horticulture and fruit supplies, have been disrupted to varying degrees due to delayed agri-inputs and transport disruption. However, over recent months, food supplies and price inflation of food and domestic retail items have remained relatively stable (WFP Timor-Leste 2020).

COVID-19 has reduced the demand for a number of export crops, such as coffee, copra, konjac and candlenut. Coffee is grown by up to 38% of farmers and disruptions to markets have direct and deleterious impacts on farmer household incomes. It is reported that the trading cooperatives, Café Brisa Serena and Alter Trade Timor have had export orders cancelled. It remains unclear if Indonesian traders who normally visit Timor to purchase coffee will visit in 2020, as a result of travel restrictions and a weakened Indonesian rupiah (MDF 2020).

Smallholder agriculture/horticulture

In the 2019–2020 cropping season, delays in the onset of rains and reports of below average harvests have been reported in regions of the island (for example, Baucau, Atauro, Oecussi). These reduced returns, which may have been affected by fall armyworm, have caused shortages and income deficits in a number of areas. However, the arrival of the COVID-19 emergency came at a time when most households had begun harvesting their main seasonal food gardens. This provided an opportunity to store grain and other secondary crops and generate income from crop sales to regional markets.

In the medium term, the scenario is more uncertain, not simply because of variable monsoon weather, but also because of the prospect of shortages of seed and agricultural inputs to support cropping and farm production. Timor-Leste is highly dependent on a range of vital agri-inputs, including seeds (especially for horticulture), day-old chicks, animal feeds, pesticides, herbicides, tools and equipment (MDF 2020), most of which come across the land border from Indonesian Timor. According to recent reports, a number of local suppliers have exhausted their existing stock or are unable to source new supplies. On the border, three logistics companies have had nine tonnes of agri-inputs held up by customs for two months (MDF 2020). These shortages will have direct impacts on the incomes of vegetable growers and market gardeners, as seed prices increase, or shortages continue. For example, among the few local broiler chicken producers, Vecom and Hanai Malu have already had to stop production because they are unable to source day-old chicks from Indonesia (MDF 2020).

Animal husbandry

As noted above, the COVID-19 pandemic was preceded by African swine fever, a highly infectious and lethal disease that was detected in Timor-Leste on 9 September 2019 and confirmed by the government on 27 September 2019. Over a number of weeks, a total of 100 outbreaks on smallholder pig farms were recorded in Dili. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries formed a taskforce to put control measures in place and implemented ban on the movement of pig and pork products between districts.

Despite these early measures, African swine fever spread rapidly across the country. Outbreaks have been reported in the districts of Baucau, Covalima, Ermera, Lautem, Liquiça, Bobonaro, Manatutu, Manufahi and Viqueque. By early 2020, African swine fever had caused the deaths of up to 50,000 pigs (12.5% of total) (T. Barnes, pers comm, 2020). Some areas are reported to have lost most of their animals, which is a major disaster for many poor rural households. Recent attempts to update the impact of African swine fever in Timor-Leste suggest that outbreaks continue despite biosecurity containment and greater public awareness. Based on regional reports (MAF staff, pers comm, 2020), there appear to be greater losses in the central and western areas of the country than the eastern sector. This suggests that the ban on pig transport may be slowing the spread of the virus, with the COVID-19 emergency restrictions reinforcing those separations.

International labour migration

The growing expansion of formal and informal temporary international labour migration out of Timor-Leste was immediately and significantly disrupted by the declaration of a state of emergency, the closure of borders and quarantine restrictions. Formal migration programs are managed by the Timor-Leste Government through bilateral agreements with Australia (Seasonal Workers Program) and South Korea (Employment Permit System). There is an expanding demand for participation in these programs, which offer a number of pathways to higher incomes, savings programs and voluntary remittances to supplement source household incomes in Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste now has access to the Australian Pacific Labour Scheme for ‘semi-skilled’ workers, offering a longer time frame and wider work opportunities (Rose 2019).

Informal labour migration among young Timorese travelling on Portuguese passports to work in the United Kingdom in a range of low-skilled shift and factory jobs has also been popular since 2010 (McWilliam 2020). High rates of remittances to home households has been a prominent feature of this trend, which has provided significant direct benefits to participating families. Curtain (2018) has highlighted the growing contribution of remittances as a non-oil export industry. In 2017, this amounted to US$40 million, with around 65% sourced from the United Kingdom (Scheiner 2019).

The impact of COVID-19 travel disruptions and varying degrees of lockdown in different countries has had varying negative impacts on the migrant labour migration. In the United Kingdom, most hospitality workers lost work when restaurants, cafes and other businesses shut down, but other sectors were only lightly affected (for example, supermarket and food packaging businesses). In Australia, seasonal workers from Timor-Leste have continued to work and receive remuneration, and remittance flows via Western Union transfers have not been affected.

The main COVID-19-related disruption is to potential labour migrants who have not been able to travel to their planned destinations. With little or no alternative employment in Timor-Leste, certainly not with comparable wage levels, there is a growing backlog of frustrated applicants for overseas labour migration work, particularly young people.

8.4.4 Recovery and resilience

As of late July 2020, with no records of new COVID-19 infections for two months, the economy of Timor-Leste has been gradually opening up. Dili is reported to be busy and operating close to normal, but with social distancing measures (distancia fisika) in place. It is anticipated that, for the continuing period of extended emergency, the only restrictions will be the closure of the international border for travel with Indonesia and restrictions and conditions on entry to Timor-Leste by expatriates (two weeks quarantine) and foreigners (excluded, with some exceptions). Trade and import–export arrangements will remain open but will be prone to disruptions and stoppages in supply chains.

As Timor-Leste adjusts to the COVID-19 conditions and prospects for a period of continuing uncertainty, it is appropriate to consider the prospects for economic recovery and the renewed enthusiasm for continuing the nation-building process that Timor-Leste has been engaged in since Independence in 2002. This section highlights a range of key areas that will provide sources of recovery and resilience.

The Petroleum Fund as a safety net

During the recovery phase in a continuing COVID-19-constrained environment, Timor-Leste remains heavily reliant on the Petroleum Fund for recurrent spending in the foreseeable future. There is a growing urgency to generate additional oil and gas revenues from new developments (not a short-term prospect) or hasten towards non-oil sources of revenue and income. Both prospects face significant challenges and the looming crisis may force a reappraisal of current investment priorities.

At the same time, with the success of the recent nationwide cash transfer measures for 318,000 households in response to COVID-19, continued use of the multibillion-dollar Petroleum Fund to support vulnerable households directly for longer periods may be both necessary, popular and politically persuasive. On 24 June 2020, the parliament approved a second extraordinary transfer of US$287 million from the Petroleum Fund to strengthen state accounts and the COVID-19 fund to ensure normal administration prior to the approval of the 2020 State General Budget (Tatoli 24 June 2020).

Informal sector employment

It is likely that much of the informal sector will begin to recover with the lifting of the state of emergency and the resumption of economic activity. These activities include market trading and transportation services, regional agriculture and fishing activity, market gardens, cleaning and security services, shopkeepers, hairdressers and building activities. As long as Timor-Leste continues to be free of any renewed surge in COVID-19 cases, many aspects of the precarious informal sector will gradually return to 2019 levels of activity. This will have significant flow-on benefits to the many households that depend on these forms of income. One with significant potential to provide enhanced household incomes and improve local food supplies is small-scale horticulture, particularly higher-value seasonal vegetable production (Rola-Rubzen et al 2011).

Other employment sectors are likely to remain subdued or inactive, with increased risk of extended hardships for business operators, especially tourism-focused businesses (for example, homestays, tours, dive tourism, vehicle rental, restaurants and affiliated enterprises). In these circumstances, there will be a need for further government budgetary support in the light of continuing high unemployment. The continuing disruption to women’s incomes will also have proportionate impacts on many rural and urban households.

Off-farm income

Another common feature of rural household livelihood practices is the general need to secure off-farm incomes during the dry season or after the main food harvest. Farmer households tend to be opportunistic in these practices, focusing on activities and prospective local resources that provide quick cash returns. Men and women are active in these seasonal activities, which include bamboo, palm thatch and firewood sales to passing traffic, selling construction timber and other building materials, handmade textiles, sea salt, wild honey, fish products, horticulture and the production of vegetables for urban markets, as well as small-scale trading, off-farm labouring on roads or construction crews, and the production of fermented and distilled palm liquor (tua sabu), which is widely consumed and used in local rituals. These diverse off-farm supplementary activities are likely to pick up again as transport links and market activity resume. A minimum level of cash is required to purchase domestic essentials and groceries, including noodles, cooking oil, salt and imported rice, which has become a favoured food.

Animal husbandry

The majority of rural households and many urban families integrate animal husbandry into their smallholder livelihood activities. The 2015 census found that almost all households (97%) own livestock, 96% raise pigs and 79% raise local chickens, for the most part on a free-roaming scavenging approach to animal husbandry. Cattle and buffalo ownership among households is lower (23%), which is a reflection of their higher unit cost, but they remain an important component of agricultural livelihoods in Timor-Leste.

Pigs and African swine fever

Historically, pigs are the second most numerous livestock species raised in Timor-Leste (87.2% of households) with a total pig population of 419,169 (Direcção Nacional de Estatística 2018). Pigs are important in traditional ceremonies and represent the greatest contributor to monetary income from livestock. The most common pig-raising system is a free-roaming scavenger system, but some pigs are raised in semi-confined or confined systems with supplementary feeding, often by women and girls. Availability of feed is a key constraint, especially in the dry season, and is the principal reason that pigs are allowed to roam freely in villages and scavenge for food.

The emergence of African swine fever in 2019 added another major risk to smallholder pig rearing. Over time, as the threat of African swine fever in Timor-Leste moves from an epidemic to an endemic situation, there is a need for more widespread and reinforced public education on how to reduce the risk of disease to enable communities to raise pigs safely (Barnes et al 2020b). It should be noted that Timor-Leste already hosts classic swine fever, for which a vaccine is available but rarely delivered. There is no vaccine for African swine fever to date. The difficulty here is that the added costs to establish household-based biosecure rearing practices for their animals (pens, fencing, disinfectants, feed and clean water) may be prohibitive, with no indication of support from the government extension services.

Pigs are highly regarded by Timorese households. They are a store of wealth and they play a vital role in familial exchange practices (Umane-fetosawa) and expectations that inform social relations in Timor-Leste communities. While this varies around the country, all life-cycle transitions (births, marriages, deaths, end of mourning, new house commemorations, and so on) engage a network of agnatic and affinally5related households, whose connections and contributions are acknowledged with reciprocated gifts. Pigs, cattle and buffaloes play an important ceremonial role in these ritual settings, both as gifts to be exchanged and as contributions to commensal feasting. In addition, although the majority of Timor-Leste citizens are Catholic, ancestral religion remains an important focus for many communities. Sacrificial veneration of ancestors and the use of divination requires the sacrifice of piglets and chickens both as offerings and as the basis of shared meals. As a result of these factors, the dramatic loss of pigs to a new and lethal virus is not only a financial shock to households but has broader impacts on nutrition and the consumption of meat protein (Wong et al 2020).


Chickens are a ubiquitous feature of village and urban life in Timor-Leste. Small numbers are raised by the great majority of households for egg production and are used as a source of cash income or for ritual purposes. Chickens are raised mainly by women (Wong et al 2020) on a free-roaming scavenging basis (except for fighting roosters used in cockfighting).

Chickens are also the most commonly eaten meat in Timor-Leste (GDS 2011), but stock losses are high due to predation in young birds from cats and snakes. Knowledge of improved husbandry practices is poor and extension services are weak (TOMAK 2020). The main disease problem affecting flocks is Newcastle disease, which can kill large numbers quickly if there is an outbreak. It is also common practice to consume sick or dead birds, which can have deleterious human health impacts (Wong 2018). There remains a risk of highly pathogenic Asian influenza entering Timor-Leste via the porous land border with Indonesia. Fighting cockerels are said to be much cheaper in West Timor and are easy to transport (The New Humanitarian 2008).

There is a vaccine for Newcastle disease, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has an established program in the districts to provide vaccination services on a periodic basis. Lack of effective control of outbreaks is in part due to capacity constraints for Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries veterinary technicians in terms of meeting demand. The logistics of rural vaccination services also preclude effective coverage, as continuing regular outbreaks of Newcastle disease indicate (MAF staff, pers comm, 2020)6. In one ACIAR study, flock-level Newcastle disease sero-prevalence was observed (at least one bird tested had antibodies against Newcastle disease virus) and a total of 35.3% of flocks had a minimum of one bird being Newcastle disease sero-positive at least once over the study period (Serrão et al 2012). Sero-prevalence usually provides an underestimate of Newcastle disease, as birds infected with velogenic strains generally die (R. Alders, pers comm, 2020).

There is a strong demand for both eggs and poultry meat in Timor-Leste, particularly in urban areas and Dili. For the most part, however, these products are supplied by imports rather than local chicken and egg production facilities. They come mostly from Brazil (16,561 t of chicken meat and 3,850 t of chicken eggs, worth US$12 million in 2018). According to Scheiner (2019:101), about 40% of the goods imported for consumption could be produced in Timor-Leste if agriculture, food processing and small manufacturing were improved. However, there are limited commercial poultry breeding and production facilities operating in Timor-Leste, even though the opportunity to improve local supply is significant. Limited private-sector interest and investment is another constraining feature for commercial chicken meat and egg supply, which will struggle to compete on price with imported products. There is significant opportunity and economic benefits to be gained from cost-effective private-sector investment in local poultry production.

Cattle and buffalo management

Like pigs, cattle (Bos javanicus) and buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) in Timor-Leste are prestige animals, acquired and lightly managed by households for participation in the complex exchange relationships of Timorese extended family life. They are also viewed as a store of wealth to be sold for cultural exchange purposes, or to fund household expenses. Communities across Timor-Leste have been building up their herds of (Bali) cattle and water buffalo, which were largely destroyed or disbursed in the destructive withdrawal of the Indonesian occupying armed forces in 1999.

Across Timor-Leste today, more than 150,000 cattle, 100,000 buffalo and 200,000 small ruminants (goats and sheep) graze some 200,000 ha of public lands, most of which is poorly managed open commons (Fordyce 2017). Grazing land is generally highly degraded with dense, woody and unmanaged herbaceous weed infestations (for example, Lantana camara, Mimosa diplotricha and Chromolaena odorata) with very low annual pasture production. The absence of improved pastures, overgrazing and seasonal droughts means that much of the stock is very underweight and significant stock losses occur due to lack of water and feed. Diseases such as brucellosis are endemic and, while not fatal to cattle, cause high rates of calf mortality. These persistent challenges are compounded by the limited availability of veterinary services—Fordyce (2017) reports just 15 qualified vets in the country—and a reliance on a small suite of remedies (antibiotics, antiparasitics and vitamins) to treat animals usually undertaken periodically by district-based veterinary technicians (MAF staff, pers comm, 2020).

There is growing demand for beef in urban areas but marketing, butchering and processing of beef products remains rudimentary. Reports of significant unrecorded sales of cattle into Indonesia markets across the West Timor land border (estimated at 5,000 per annum) due to more favourable pricing may affect the stability of beef supply in Timor-Leste markets (ACIAR project leader, pers comm, 2020). During the COVID-19, period, however, this trade has reportedly been disrupted.


Timor-Leste has a coastline of around 735 km and 72,000 km2 of Exclusive Economic Zone waters with rich marine resources and the potential to develop offshore fisheries, especially in the Timor Sea off the southern coast. Coastal and near-shore waters support modest numbers of artisanal and seasonal fishing activity—FAO (2019) estimate 20,000 fishers—with low-technology dugout canoes and motorised outrigger boats. Sales of fresh and dried fish are localised, with limited and fragmented distribution into hinterland markets and towns by motorbike. Average fish consumption in Timor-Leste is 6.1 kg per capita per annum, substantially lower than the regional Asian average of 17 kg per capita per annum (AECOM 2018:3). However, there is significant variation, ranging from 17.6 kg per capita per annum on the coasts (more than meat) and just 4 kg per capita per annum in the hinterland and mountains. Coastal communities also gain additional year-round supplementary nutrition through regular reef gleaning at low tide (mainly by women and children). Most artisanal fishing around the coast uses relatively low-technology fishing methods (line, net, fish traps and cages) and fish marketing remains localised and poorly coordinated.

In the 2011 National Strategic Plan, it was noted that, compared to other agricultural sectors:

‘(F)isheries is already well regulated with a number of laws, decree laws and ministerial diplomas directly relevant to the sector. However, there is little enforcement and the sector operates much as it has done in the past.’ (RDTL 2011:131)

Over the last decade, Fisheries (within the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) has trialled a number of initiatives and programs, but evidence of any sustained development is minimal. A revised policy approach has now been developed (López-Angarita et al 2019).

The establishment of a sustainable commercial fishing industry accessing the deeper waters of the Timor Sea off the southern coast is a national government strategic priority. However, this objective has proved problematic for a range of reasons, with numerous setbacks in planning and licensing of operators. Limited patrol of the marine Exclusive Economic Zone has been a factor in the illegal operations by foreign vessels in these waters. Licensing external operators has also proved fraught, and a number of fishing operations have been shut down and fined. There have been no licensed fishing operations operating in the Timor Sea since 2017 and a fish processing and canning factory developed in the eastern Lautem district in 2017 was abandoned upon completion.

On land, a number of pilot-scale aquaculture projects have been developed in Timor-Leste over the years, focusing mainly on freshwater milkfish and tilapia species production. These attempts have had mixed success. A recent New Zealand evaluation report noted at the end of a five-year technical support program that ‘the business case for aquaculture, including hatcheries, has yet to be proven’ and that ‘five years is too short a time period to establish a well-managed and sustainable aquaculture sector when starting from such modest beginnings and in such a challenging environment’ (AECOM 2018:3).

3 World Vision is providing COVID-19 hygiene and social distancing training through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership Disaster READY program.

4 A 2010 law against domestic violence defined domestic violence as a public crime and included physical, psychological, sexual and economic violence as prohibited forms of violence. There have been increased prosecutions since then, but there remains much scope for improvement (Gerry & Sjölin 2018).

5 All Timor-Leste language communities form around membership to ancestral clans (origin houses) based on either patrifilial or matrifilial kinship connections (i.e tracing membership through fathers and grandfathers or mothers and grandmothers). All of these kin groups are exogamous, meaning that marriage partners are found outside one’s ‘house of origin’ and the relationship creates lifelong patterns of gift exchange and reciprocal obligations via these affinal (in-laws) alliances (McWilliam 2011).

6 A thermo-tolerant vaccine developed by ACIAR and delivered via eye drops three times a year by trained community vaccinators has proved effective on a trial basis but needs to be scaled up (ABC 2016). www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2016-04-21/village-chicken-project-delivering-food-security-for-east-timor/7341888

8.5 Opportunities for action

8.5.1 Snapshot of potential investment options


8.5.2 Australian Government investments in Timor-Leste

ACIAR’s research agenda supports Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development Plan 2011–2030, which sets out a clear development agenda and aspirational goals. In consultation with the Timor-Leste Government, the agreed medium-term research priorities are:

  • improve smallholder and community livelihoods through adopting improved varieties of staple crops and legumes
  • make livestock, fisheries and horticultural systems more productive and resilient
  • improve individual and institutional research and development capacity in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the University of Timor Lorosa’e.

ACIAR projects and the complementary Australian Aid programs funded by DFAT are providing constructive development support and applied research activities that have been formulated in relation to the Strategic Development Plan and with consultation and agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

DFAT’s current five-year, A$25 million fund focusing on nutrition-sensitive agriculture and implemented through the TOMAK (To’os ba Moris Di’ak or Farming for Prosperity) program is a good example of a smaller-scale, targeted intervention that creates opportunities and demonstrable benefits for participants, particularly women. The program has recently received an additional boost of A$500,000 to address immediate shortages, and food and seed supply systems to complement Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries activities.

8.5.3 Short term (up to 1 year)

Continue support for activities addressing disruption

Social protection programs

The swift response of the Timor-Leste Government to provide interim cash transfers to over 300,000 households across the country highlighted the awareness of the immediate pressures placed on households as a result of the emergency lockdown and the extent of rural household poverty in particular. These broad-based measures to support poor households with direct cash transfers can be seen as temporary elaborations of more formal and systematic social protection policies, such as the Bolsa de Mãe (‘Mother’s purse’, modelled on the World Bank–promoted Brazilian Bolsa familia) introduced in 2008 that provides monthly payments to support child nutrition, education and welfare among poor families. As the economic impact of COVID-19 continues, there is scope for extending the support provided by these kinds of public transfer measures to help sustain the informal economy and casualised workforce.

However, these payments need to be considered in the context of a broader review of national budgets, which already provide significant cash distributions and pensions to large numbers of recipients across the country. The government supports investments for village-based labour schemes on roads and infrastructure that provide relatively well-remunerated supplementary wages for participants. There is also a large budget allocation to registered veterans of the Independence struggle (veteranus), who consume a growing and unsustainable portion of the state budget—some 6% or over US$80 million in 2017 (Scheiner 2019). This is equivalent to the funding allocated to health and agriculture combined (Wallis 2019).

Village development funds

Political and economic decentralisation to support local-level initiatives and governance has been canvassed but delayed over many years. The government has promoted a program for national village development, which allocates regular and loosely tied direct funding to local villages across Timor-Leste. The program offers an opportunity for more effective use of development funds (now mostly directed to infrastructure) to improve access and investment in productive local resources. There is a need for greater coordination and integration of the diverse range of locally supported initiatives and programs that are implemented across the country by non-government organisations and international aid programs to improve outcomes and complement government initiatives (Cardno 2018).

8.5.4 Intermediate term (up to 5 years)

Encourage private sector market integration and value-chain development

DFAT’s Australian Aid support for Timor-Leste supports a market development facility designed to connect individual producers, businesses, governments and non-government organisations with markets and promote business development away from dependence on the fossil-fuel economy (DFAT 2017). In Timor-Leste, there are many niche activities and prospective businesses, particularly in agriculture and tourism, that offer direct benefits to supply-chain stakeholders (producers, households and small businesses) with flow-on effects to the wider economy and labour force. However, as noted above, the private sector in Timor-Leste remains small and underdeveloped in a context dominated by government and public sector controls.

There is scope for ACIAR to engage and partner with a revised DFAT-funded market development facility to scope and explore the feasibility of business opportunities focusing on local productive resources, including agribusiness and agricultural supply chains, as well as the potential for market-based tourism. In doing so, there is a pressing need to promote and support successful private-sector supply and market-oriented value chains.

Potential investments in market development activities include:

  • improved government reporting and dissemination of retail food prices and farm-level commodity prices, including regional markets
  • implementation of integrated pest management systems for smallholder farming systems to combat fall armyworm and other crop pests
  • new and improved livestock marketing, including liveweight sales facilities to promote improved animal handling and welfare arrangements, including more humane and hygienic butchering, processing, chilling and distribution networks to meet growing consumer demand. A focus on cattle/buffalo, pigs, chickens and egg production and fisheries is recommended
  • community-based ecotourism focused on defined natural, cultural and religious attractions that may include homestay facilities, dining and guided tours and trekking, field school opportunities, and bicycle and motorbike tours. There are a small number of existing attempts at this kind of venture that have been developed by the local environmental non-government organisation, Haburas (Gomes 2013), but there is significant potential to expand possible locations and involve more communities (Edyvane et al 2012, The Asia Foundation 2018). This initiative could include marine tourism (reef diving, marine megafauna, fishing)
  • a feasibility study focused on the production and distilling of palm liquor (tua sabu) and fermented products (tua muti) for domestic consumption and export to Indonesia. The great majority of settlements across Timor-Leste use these local alcoholic beverages on a daily basis for social gatherings and sacrificial purposes. At present, the industry is largely unregulated but it provides consistent dry season income for many producers. As a longstanding cultural tradition, distilling also offers tourism potential. The feasibility study would be undertaken to highlight the sector linkages and growth potential, along with social and economic impacts of commercialisation.

Enhance social protection access and benefits for rural women

Women are often constrained in their access to social protection programs, including cash transfers, public work programs and asset transfers. Integrating gender-sensitive social protection design measures is the key to ensuring that rural women can benefit equally from these interventions (FAO 2020b).

Improve regional linkages with Indonesia

The continuing closure of the land border between Timor-Leste and Indonesian West Timor, along with the impact on agri-input supply chains and the flow of people, has highlighted the importance of Indonesia as a critical source of and destination for goods and market opportunities. Improving regional linkages and access to Indonesian markets and research agencies can form the basis for mutually beneficial cooperation and collaboration on a range of issues and development opportunities (ADB 2019). In a COVID-19-controlled environment, there are prospective exchanges between university researchers and students, greater access to Indonesian markets for livestock and value chains, more open access and movement of local populations (who already have familial connections), and agreements around travel corridors for populations in Oecussi.

Continue public support for information economy and casual workforce

Until COVID-19 intervened, temporary overseas labour migration has been a growing and highly significant economic export and skills training activity that will inevitably become a significant livelihood component of the Timor-Leste economy. In 2017, for the first time, income from labour migration in the form of savings and remittances was the largest source of non-oil revenue (Curtain 2018). This flow of financial support from both formal and informal labour migration activities provides a highly beneficial and direct source of supplementary income for rural and urban origin households. It is also a potential source of investment capital that might be productively directed to improved and intensified production and market systems (Wigglesworth 2017).

There is some evidence that young Timorese returning from overseas work contracts are converting their acquired knowledge and investment savings into innovative agricultural and diversified investment activities. The United Nations Development Programme–sponsored youth business advisory centre in Dili (Knua Juventude Fila-Liman) has focused on encouraging returning migrants to consider more entrepreneurial business start-ups (UNDP 2018b). The informal labour migration sector has seen a growing circular migration to the United Kingdom, with strong remittance flows providing supplementary income for enhancing household wellbeing in rural and urban communities (Curtain 2018, McWilliam 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted return visits and some migrant work in the United Kingdom, but other opportunities have opened up and allowed the remittances to continue flowing.

In a recovering COVID-19 period, as labour migration opportunities (re)emerge, there is scope to promote more productive use and investment of savings and remittances. These include expanding youth business and investment advisory centres in selected urban areas of Timor-Leste and offering a range of information, technical support and networking services to promote ideas exchange, training, investment advice and savings. The longer-term prospects for overseas labour migration and remittance transfers are good and are likely to form a key component of Timor-Leste’s post fossil-fuel economic future. Promoting high participation among young women in these opportunities should also be prioritised. In addition, opportunities for labour migration and semi-skilled development programs in Australia could be increased and expanded for young Timorese (18–30 years) working as temporary labour migrants.

Explore sustainable intensification farming options, particularly intercropping

Livestock play a vital economic and cultural role in Timorese social life. Improved animal husbandry (combining food, nutrition, water, control and more effective biosecurity, veterinary and extension services) will result in higher production and lower mortality rates in animals and greater economic returns to smallholders. A key to this recovery is to focus on the gradual intensification of farm management among smallholders, especially the production of food and fodder intercropping on customarily owned farmland that provides de facto secure tenures (Fordyce 2017).

Support programs for chicken and pig biosecurity, vaccination and animal nutrition

While pasture development and management of the rangelands, including weed eradication, may be a long-term national objective, a more targeted approach based around on-farm production and management will yield sustainable results more directly and quickly. Given the nutritional benefits offered by increased consumption of meat and poultry products, there are opportunities for a range of rural development initiatives that focus on improved production and management systems for enhanced community nutrition and income. Interventions need to prioritise the most popular animals: poultry, pigs and cattle/buffalo. As ACIAR has already implemented a number of support projects for each of these livestock groups, further intervention at scale is both feasible and appropriate, with a key focus on feed supply, biosecurity and vaccination management, and improved marketing and related facilities.

Encourage private sector engagement in fisheries for income and nutrition

The more than fourfold difference between fish consumed in coastal villages (17 kg per capita per annum) compared with those in the mountains (4 kg per capita per annum) suggests that it is not food preferences that shapes the results, but availability of the food resource across Timor-Leste. However, Población (2013) argues that fish are not preferred by most Timorese, who value animal meats much more highly because of their exchange and prestige value.

Increased consumption of fish protein and seafood has great potential for improving the nutrition of Timorese diets and reducing the endemic problems of undernutrition, especially among pregnant and/or lactating women and children. There are several promising interventions:

  • The establishment of a deep-water fishing industry presence in the Timor Sea would supply local and export markets, resolve licensing constraints and give Timor-Leste the ability to deny and deflect illegal fishing and enforce national maritime boundaries.
  • ACIAR’s current fisheries and nutrition study with WorldFish (FIS/2017/032) provides a platform to develop longer-term strategic interventions in the fisheries sector with a focus on community-based and private-sector business and market development. Priority efforts should be directed to near-shore smallholder fishing with co-management of marine resources and expanding the use of fish aggregating devices for higher yields (Mills et al 2013).
  • Domestic fish consumption can be promoted through purpose-built facilities (ice making and cold storage) (Población 2013), improved dried fish technologies, coordinated fish marketing supply chains and distribution into rural and mountain areas.

8.5.5 Longer term (up to 10 years)

As the people of Timor-Leste continue the process of post-conflict and post-Independence nation building, there remain multiple developmental challenges that need to be addressed to lift greater numbers of households out of poverty, reduce rural–urban inequalities across multiple health and socioeconomic indicators, provide access to essential services and generate a stable and effective, decentralised system of political governance. These are medium-long-term challenges that require sustained policy support and program implementation by governments and a growing private sector. From the perspective of ACIAR, there would be much value in focusing on lifting the quality and effectiveness of education and technical training, especially in relation to agricultural investment and market-based developments.

Strengthen capacity in agricultural systems understanding

Timor-Leste underinvests in education spending. Only 8% of the national budget was allocated to the education sector in the 2016 and 2017 budgets (Scheiner 2019:96). Much has been written on the limitations and endemic problems of schooling in post-Independence Timor-Leste, including curriculum issues, poor (Portuguese) language learning and comprehension, teacher capacity and qualifications, and high rates of absenteeism among students and teachers. On an average day, more than one-third of Grade 1 students, 13% of primary school teachers and 25% of secondary school teachers are absent (Patrinos & Ramos 2015, NDS 2016). Against a general background of rural poverty, these factors result, unsurprisingly, in poor educational outcomes. Girls in rural areas are often further disadvantaged in favour of their brothers’ continuing education (given limited available funds) and are at risk of teenage pregnancy, early marriage and a life of domestic drudgery with little opportunity for further education and training (UNFPA 2017).

In this context, there is scope for a longer-term focus on capacity-building and high-quality technical skills training for productive livelihood applications and investment activities in agriculture and compatible enterprises. Key areas of support include curriculum and teacher training for rural high schools and vocational training centres with an emphasis on agricultural and technical qualifications across a range of vocational trades and in-demand services, with a strong emphasis on supporting the economic interests and skills of female farmers.

8.6 Conclusions

The detection of the first cases of COVID-19 infections in Timor-Leste during March 2020 was cause for considerable fear and concern. The virus had the potential to quickly overwhelm the existing medical health system. The government’s response was swift and effective, declaring an emergency lockdown, shutting the country’s borders, closing schools and businesses, and restricting travel between districts. A medical testing regime and social messaging campaign was introduced to encourage effective preventive health practices. As a result of these decisive measures, by July 2020 there were no active COVID-19 cases and there have been no reported deaths or serious hospitalisations due to the virus. The risk of a renewed outbreak, however, remains high, and the Timor-Leste health system is poorly equipped to cope.

The major initial impact from the COVID-19 alert has been economic. Large numbers of people lost their livelihoods and informal sector income sources. The emergency lockdown was sustained for a number of months before restrictions were gradually eased. By July 2020, it was reported that Dili and the regions had returned to a more vibrant level of activity, with schools with markets and shops opening, as well as regular transport between regions.

During the emergency period, the government allocated a number of income support measures and emergency payments (US$100 per month) to 318,000 poorer households for a period of two months. The government also moved quickly to ensure that additional stockpiles of imported rice were set aside to secure ongoing food supply. Much of these additional stocks were imported from Vietnam by private companies. Food prices have been broadly stable, with some fluctuations reflecting disruption of supplies during the period of emergency.

As of July 2020, COVID-19 has affected some sectors more than others:

  • There were major disruptions to the fledgling tourism sector, including restaurants, tours, hotels, rental companies, and flow-on effects to local communities who benefit indirectly from tourism. The private sector is already small in Timor-Leste, but it now smaller, with prospects for recovery some way off. There are larger numbers of unemployed and underemployed young people, with few opportunities for full-time employment.
  • Agri-input and other supply-chain provisions across the land border with Indonesia have been disrupted. The border remains closed to people, but despite being officially open to trade, Timor-Leste customs operations have restricted transport movements to a weekly two-hour window, resulting in long delays and disrupted supplies. This has had knock-on effects for horticulture activities (market gardens) and agribusinesses.
  • The growing developments in international temporary and circular labour migration (formal and informal) have been severely disrupted with the shutdown of international travel. Timorese labour migrants in the United Kingdom, South Korea and Australia are able to continue working and send remittances to their families, but new and aspiring migrant candidates in Timor-Leste have had their plans thwarted. Labour migration is a growing and important source of non-fossil-fuel export revenue for Timor-Leste (>US$40 million) that will become more important in a post-COVID-19 world.

8.6.1 Risk multipliers

The main potential risk multipliers that could combine to exacerbate existing COVID-19 impacts include:

  • the threat of another outbreak of COVID-19 disease infections leading to uncontrolled community transmission and overwhelming pressure on the health system and exacerbated economic disruption
  • the risk of further delay in ratifying the 2020 national budget
  • a major disruption in food supply chains, particularly the availability of imported staple foods such as rice, oil and chickens
  • the arrival of African swine fever, which threatens the pig population across the country, and the livelihoods of thousands of Timorese farmer households who depend on pigs as stores of wealth and ritual gifts to fulfil exchange obligations within familial alliance networks.

8.6.2 Resilience and adaptation

Two decades after the end of a generation-long military occupation, Timor-Leste society continues its collective journey towards a more prosperous and peaceful future. This period has been marked by many setbacks and challenges (environmental, economic and political) but the trajectory has been a positive one. There have been significant and sustained improvements in health and income indicators, and the provision of essential services and welfare.

Despite the lingering legacies of historical displacement, trauma and repression, the Timorese people have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for resilience and adapting successfully to circumstances beyond their control. These qualities are built around the continuing strength of local traditions (lisan), including highly detailed technical knowledge of natural resources, an abiding faith in religious and ancestral protection, and close-knit kinship networks sustained by ongoing exchange and familial obligations.

8.6.3 Opportunities for action

Analysis of the economic impacts of COVID-19 against the background of prevailing constraints in Timor-Leste has highlighted a range of gaps and vulnerabilities in existing Timor-Leste food systems. Many of these are systemic problems that have long been recognised but have proved challenging to resolve or overcome. Prospective interventions include the improved and reimagined use of the sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund to provide cash transfers to reduce poverty and enhance wellbeing.

Australian aid assistance to Timor-Leste is currently addressing a range of development gaps where further investment and expansion of effort would assist in alleviating food and nutrition security concerns. The DFAT Australian Aid Investment Plan (2016–2019), which covers a wide range of interventions, has as its stated strategic commitments:

  • improving livelihoods
  • enhancing human development
  • strengthening governance and institutions.

Cross-cutting themes across all of these programs are improving nutrition, empowering women and girls, and supporting disability-inclusive development (DFAT, no date).

The DFAT set of projects under the TOMAK program, which is working closely with rural development projects and support programs, is well targeted. Based on the current assessment of gaps and development opportunities in contemporary Timor-Leste, the following possibilities should be considered:

  • intensification of farming practice and productivity through greater use of intercropping with livestock fodder crops, weed prevention cover crops, higher-value horticulture and tree crops and increased inputs
  • promotion of integrated pest management to control insect damage to food crops, including fall armyworm
  • improvements to chicken and pig biosecurity and vaccination programs, along with greater promotion of animal nutrition, livestock management and marketing, with a focus on female farmers
  • expansion of international labour migration, including the exploration of an expanded role for Australian assistance and new emerging markets in Japan and Canada
  • continued support of fledgling private-sector investment and efforts to encourage government promotion of private-sector growth in agriculture and market supply chains, increased employment and reduced regulatory hurdles
  • improvements to fish harvesting, marketing, processing and distribution to upland markets and communities for consumption and enhanced nutrition
  • new and improved livestock production, marketing and processing arrangements along with facilities to promote improved animal welfare arrangements, more humane and hygienic butchering, processing, chilling and distribution networks to meet growing consumer demand
  • further development and expansion of broiler chicken and commercial egg production enterprises to supply urban consumer demand.

8.7 Acknowledgments

This assessment has benefited from the knowledge, expertise and reflections of many people who gave their time freely and provided their own specialist understanding of the vulnerabilities, impacts and opportunities facing the people of Timor-Leste during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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