Published Nov. 21, 2017
It was another hot sunny day and all Filomena da Costa could do was sit in a small hut and stare sadly at her parched paddy field. The 48-year-old farmer and her husband Stanislao Ramos dos Reis, 58, bought the one-hectare plot of land in Timor-Leste’s Manatuto district a few years ago. Farming has been their main source of livelihood since 2007. All was fine until severe drought brought about by the El Nino phenomenon began hitting Timor-Leste — Asia’s most Catholic country — toward the end of 2015. The results have been catastrophic for many farmers who are experiencing poor agricultural yields and crop failures.
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“Since then I have harvested rice only once a year. And a very poor quantity of poor quality at that,” the mother of seven said. This year has been especially bad. “I tried channeling water from a nearby river. But, I could only get a ton of rice from my July harvest,” she said. She used to grow two crops per year, which produced at least three tons of rice per harvest. Knowing they could not rely on rice farming, Filomena and her husband began breeding cows to survive but now the drought was starting eat away at their 33-strong herd of livestock. “One has already died and others are feeling the heat,” she said. Another farmer, Domingos Ramos Correira, 57, had to leave his 1.5-hectare rice paddy plot in Baucau district and work as a daily laborer on construction projects to survive. “It was hard to leave my field, which has been my family’s main livelihood for years,” said Domingos, who also has seven children. Filomena and Domingos are among hundreds of thousands of people affected by a severe and prolonged drought ravaging the country. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the country has suffered from long bouts of dry weather for about two years and has affected approximately 350,000 people, or one-third of Timor-Leste’s 1.3 million population. Most live in the worst affected districts of Baucau, Cova Lima, Lautem, Oucesse and Viqueque. According to the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS), an NGO based in Geneva, Switzerland, the last rainy season which ended in May was erratic and brought insufficient rainfall, maintaining drought conditions across most of the country. “Farmers are the worst hit,” said Nivio Leite Magalhaes, former director of the National Logistics Center. Worse still, agriculture is the main activity in the country. The production of staple food crops — rice and maize — has suffered badly, as has other food crops such as cassava, sweet potato and bananas. In Baucau district, farmers in seven villages have experienced total crop failure. “We have distributed emergency food aid to about 1,300 families and provided seeds for their next crop,” said Jaime dos Reis, senior communication and advocacy coordinator of the humanitarian aid group World Vision Timor-Leste. The government, meanwhile, says it is distributing rice to the needy and also selling rice at knockdown prices for those more well off. However, for farmers like Filomena and Domingos all they can do is look to the sky and pray for rain to feed and irrigate their fields. “I want to have a healthy field so that I can grow rice and feed my livestock and family properly,” Filomena said.