Timor-Leste turns 10 as it struggles against poverty

Cecily McNeill30 July 2009 Next month Timor-Leste celebrates 10 years of independence as a proud but fragile nation. In September 1999 East Timorese voted for an end to 24 years…

Cecily McNeill
30 July 2009

Next month Timor-Leste celebrates 10 years of independence as a proud but fragile nation.

In September 1999 East Timorese voted for an end to 24 years of Indonesian rule, a popular poll which resulted in a bloody and costly war as factions loyal to Indonesia refused to relinquish power. More than two-thirds of Timor’s infrastructure was destroyed and most administrative capacity returned to Indonesia.

In the ensuing decade, there have been conflicts about every two years, especially in April and May 2006 when 150,000 people fled their homes and in 2008 with attempts on the lives of the president and the prime minister.

Some 62 IDP (internally displaced people) camps were set up in Dili, Ermera, Baucau and Viqueque districts to house those refugees following the 2006 conflict and most of these camps have now closed. A recent report to the Society of Jesus which runs the Jesuit Refugee Service in the region suggests that there is now no evidence of such camps in the capital itself.

However, the IDPs’ reintegration has been difficult for many reasons. Some are trying to reoccupy homes that have been taken over by other families, or the areas to which they are trying to return are already overcrowded and there is no land. Disputes may arise from resentment over cash payments to the IDPs or from some other pre-existing grievance.
As well many of the IDPs are business people and conflicts arise with others who have brought produce from the hills to sell in the markets.

Timor-Leste is known as a fragile, post-conflict nation. More than half of its population live below the poverty line of 88 US cents a day. Life expectancy is 60. Such statistics put the country at 158th of 177 nations on the United Nations Human Development Index. Since independence its poverty has intensified.

Some 16,000 young people a year enter the workforce yet barely 40 percent of young people find employment of any sort.

Women have limited access to quality maternity and newborn services resulting in high maternal and neonatal death rates. Yet women have an average 6.5 children each. This puts any social services the country may have under increasing pressure.

The security of its main food source, rice, is under constant threat from climate change and subsidies on imported rice risk undermining the rural economy and thus agricultural production.

Meanwhile, Timor-Leste’s principle income is revenue from oil and gas reserves under the seabed between the island and its large and imposing neighbour, Australia. In 1989 after a decade of negotiations Australia and Indonesia signed a Timor Gap Treaty placing a demarcation line in the Timor Sea two-thirds towards Timor.

Repeated attempts to move this boundary to a median line giving Timor a more equitable share in the proceeds of production have so far failed.

Nevertheless the Timorese government maintains a careful offshore investment strategy to protect the country’s main source of income, the Petroleum Fund which is in constant danger as falling oil prices force lower yields from the fund.
Despite the constant struggle for survival, it is of primary importance to maintain this capital intact so as not to inhibit future gains from its investment.

There is faltering confidence in elected members, and in the government in power. Because of security perceptions in Indonesian times, much economic and other administrative life is centralised on the capital, Dili. This brings people from the regions to the city in search of work.

As New Zealand has had to do with its Waitangi Tribunal set up to hear land grievances, Timor-Leste has an important task in developing a policy of land ownership to safeguard the future of the indigenous people.