TIMOR-LESTE: La Niña blow to crops

30 Sep 2010

TIMOR-LESTE: La Niña blow to crops

Dili/ Suai, 29 September 2010 (IRIN) - An unrelenting rainy season linked to La Niña has dragged on for months in Timor-Leste and left farmers without a June harvest and unsure when to plant for the next one.

Farmers in the southern district of Covalima usually plant from late November to March and again from April through June, but floods replaced the harvest in July. Erratic weather pummelled the southern coast, flooding fields, destroying 200 homes and affecting 1,400 families, according to the government's disaster management directorate.

In Matai village, farmer Augusta Monis Maya, 25, said floods ruined all 3ha of her maize crop. "For the past two weeks, we have had to buy [maize] at the market at US$1/kg... We are [surviving] by selling coconut oil. If people run out of money to buy coconut oil, which I sell at $2 per bottle, I will need to lower the price."

Coils of washed-up rice lay in Gaspar Fernandes' now dry paddy. His family harvested 20 sacks of rice this year - 50kg - versus 400 sacks in 2009.

"I kept waiting for the flood waters to recede so we could harvest the rice and thresh it. It just did not happen this year," he said. Flooding washed away insecticides he had sprayed, leaving the crop vulnerable to pests. "In my 10 years of rice farming, this is by far my worst harvest," said Fernandes.

Eight out of 10 people on the half-island of 1.1 million depend on agriculture for food or livelihoods, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Most farmers grow rice, which makes up 75 percent of the Timorese diet, or maize.

Volatile weather

Meteorologists have linked this year's exceptionally long rainy season to the Pacific Ocean cooling phenomenon known as La Niña. The US-based National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has linked periodic changes in temperatures in the Pacific Ocean - El Niño and La Niña - with volatile weather worldwide.

Timor-Leste's capital Dili received 76 percent more rainfall by August than for 2009 as a whole, according to the national weather service.

FAO estimates this year's erratic weather has already led to a 7 percent decline in crop yields compared with 2009.

"When there is a drop in production, it is not only food we lose, but seeds for the next planting season," said Chana Opaskomkul, FAO's emergency programme officer based in Dili.

Timor-Leste imports at least half of the 200,000MT of food it consumes annually, according to FAO estimates. Crop losses, under-exploited land, bad seeds, policies that favour imports and now increasingly inclement weather have limited local production.

The national weather service predicts more volatile weather in December and early 2011, according to the service's Meteorology Director Terencio Moniz. Based on past patterns of La Niña, the US-based Pacific Disaster Center expects conditions to be as erratic or worse for the rest of the year.

"These rains will push the dry season back. If farmers try to plant when they normally do in November, but the rains haven't stopped, we are looking at potential crop failures [in 2011]," said Opaskomkul. "We should not overestimate [the destructive power] of La Niña, but we must be cautious."

With higher-than-average food prices in 2009, FAO provided seeds to 30,000 families in Timor-Leste in 2009. Following a 2009-2010 bumper crop, FAO did not distribute seeds in 2010, but with crop failures expected in early 2011, it is prepared to resume seed distribution to 10,000 families.

Source (IRIN) : http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=90624