UNMIT Press Conference - 14 May 2008 – Near Verbatim Transcript

5 Jul 2008

UNMIT Press Conference - 14 May 2008 – Near Verbatim Transcript

UNMIT Spokesperson Allison Cooper: Thanks for joining us this morning. We are going to be talking about the Global Food Crisis and its effect in Timor-Leste, we will first hear from the Acting SRSG Finn Reske-Nielsen and we will then take your questions. Chana Opaskornkul of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and Joan Fleuren, Country Director for the World Food Programme are here to assist with the questions.

Acting SRSG Finn Reske-Nielsen: Good morning, in recent weeks there have been many stories in the international media about starvation, violence and unsolvable situations stemming from the global food crisis. While the global food crisis is serious, and it will affect all countries, the situation in Timor-Leste is being managed by the Government's importation of stocks from abroad.

Currently, there are 7,500 tonnes of rice in stock in Timor-Leste and a further 16,000 tonnes are being imported. 2,500 tonnes have arrived from Vietnam and a further 2,500 tonnes are expected this week. The remainder is due in the near future. We estimate that these food stocks will last for the immediate foreseeable future. This short-term solution will provide time for the Government to work on medium and long-term solutions.

The importations we are seeing at the moment are keeping prices from jumping. On the global market, a kilogram of rice costs between $1.20 and $1.30 compared with 40 cents 12 months ago. In Timor-Leste rice is selling for between 50 and 60 cents per kilogram compared with 40 cents per kilogram six months ago.

We do not see a danger of starvation in Timor-Leste. The Timorese have access to rice and other foods. In addition to rice, Timor-Leste produces 100,000 tonnes of maize per annum and is also a large producer of cassava which is particularly important during lean periods. Therefore there is no cause for alarm: the situation we are seeing elsewhere is not the situation we are seeing in Timor-Leste. In the coming weeks and months, the United Nations will continue to work with the Government and in particular, the National Food Security Committee, to monitor the situation and to provide advice on the unfolding situation.

Allison Cooper: Thank you Finn, do we have any questions now?

QUESTION: Good morning. I am Julio De Costa from Diario Nacional. You say that imported rice is on the way and you say the selling of rice will be the price set by the Government or will it be higher?

Joan Fleuren, WFP Country Director: The Government imports are meant to stabalise the market. So over the last 12 months globally food prices have risen by 200 per cent. But here in Timor-Leste they have not risen that much because the Government has stabilized the prices through imports. So the Government was selling rice at 50 cents a kilo, even though they spent much more than that to get it in to the community and that policy is going to continue for the foreseeable future. So to briefly answer your question, yes the food that the Government is importing will be the price the Government has set. But I would like to raise one thing the low price for the Government that the rice is importing. They can not influence by law, the prices set by private traders. So our food monitors they routinely collect price data of the market throughout the country and they usually found that the Government's rice was sold at 50 cents and local rice is sold anywhere between 70 and 80 cents per kilo. Now this point hasn't been asked, but I will state it: Over the last couple of weeks prices have increased quite a lot. One of the reasons is that there is not as much rice on the market as what there was a few weeks ago because the new harvest of rice has not come in and so there may be shortages locally so for the time being the Government has not yet filled that supply, increased food at subsidized prices. So you will see that Government rice is still sold for 50 cents a kilo where it's available but other rice both imported by traders or local producers, have increased in price so it's now one dollar a kilo.

Now, I cannot and I wouldn't like to speak on behalf of the government and what they should do, but I do know that in conversations with government officials I know they are fully aware of this and they are taking action. And continued food imports as a short term is a good measure to do so because then the Government has food stocks of its own and they can sell it at subsidized prices.

Allison Cooper: Complementing the food import situation, Chana can you please explain about the national initiatives to produce a second crop of maize and rice?

Chana Opaskornkul, FAO: The root cause of the problem in Timor-Leste is that they have never been self-sufficient in food production. We realize that they are dependent on imported food, which every year roughly allows for twenty-five to thirty percent of food need in the country. We realize that it's very important and at the moment that the Government does its best to purchase food from outside to keep the stock of food available in the country all the time. But, we also have to realize it's important for TL in the medium term to increase capacity of farmers to produce more, to be more productive in terms of food production. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries just conducted a food and crop survey last month, and from the preliminary result we know that we have a roughly 15 percent increase in food production this year. But at the same time, we still have a shortfall of production of food in the country of roughly around 50,000 metric tonnes for this year. We know that the country can be affected by the global food crisis and we may see that the price of food may decrease by the end of this year, but it will still be quite expensive. The longer-term strategy for the crisis in the country is that we must be less dependent on imported food and more productive in food production.

From the UN side, particularly FAO, we will support the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in the medium term to support the farmer to be more productive, particularly in the second planting season and we're going to start next month or the month of July. We will make good seed available and planting material and fertilizer available for roughly 30,000 families. We think by this measure we will encourage people to plant a second crop and we will increase the food production by around 30,000 metric tonnes of food production in the country. And, we also try to provide the storage capacity to farmer and it is very important because of the post harvest losses which are huge, roughly around 30 percent of food is destroyed during the storage. If you can imagine every year we produce roughly 100,000 tonnes of maize, and 30 percent of food, which is 30,000 metric tonnes, is destroyed during storage. The Government [inaudible] us to produce silos for 5,000 households this year. For the long term perspective, the Prime Minister mentioned at the rice ceremony last Saturday in Maliana that he wouldn't say that TL could not buy more rice from the outside, he would say that we have increased production and we [inaudible] support to buy the product in the country in the next few years time.

Allison Cooper: Thank you Chana. We'll take more questions.

QUESTION: Stephanie from Radio Australia: Are they (this is for Chana, I suppose) is there any disincentives for farmers to produce the second crop; will they have to have any initial outlay that they will have bear the burden of themselves, and what is the long-term incentive to produce a second crop?

Chana Opaskornkul: The problem with the farmers in TL is that normally they cannot sell their product because to import food has been very cheap for a long time until now. Last year the price of paddy was roughly around 12 cents per kilogram which roughly translates into 25 to 30 cents per kilo of rice. The farmer feels it's not incentive enough for them to produce more. Through this crisis we have to take the opportunity to encourage the farmer to produce more because I think the price in the market will continue at the high level at least until the end of the year. We are working with the Government to see how to support the farmer in terms of buying the product. We have seen the trend in other countries already, like for example in Indonesia now the Government is buying paddy for farmers at roughly 25 cents per kilogram. So we think the [TL] Government might come up with the same strategy as Indonesia this year.

QUESTION: My name is Gaitano Alves from the Center of Investigative Journalism. Mr. Finn, you mentioned that for the medium term the UN will provide advice to Government in terms of the process of importing rice. Is there any other advice the UN can provide in terms of find a solution for this problem?

Finn Reske-Nielsen: First of all, let me say that the global food crisis is something that's given a very high priority by the UN and the UN Secretary-General himself has taken charge of the UN response to the crisis and he has requested that at the country level the UN would also ensure an integrated approach across the UN system and with the World Bank. The UN system has been advising the Government a long time already on food issues particularly through the WFP efforts and the FAO. We will strengthen these efforts and yesterday I discussed with the Deputy PM that we would be very happy to advise the Government on various options that would be available in the longer term and we would also be happy to consider conducting a study of the socioeconomic impact that the food crisis might have in the medium to long term on TL. As a first step, TL has been selected as one of 20 countries that will be visited by a UN mission over the two to three months to do a country-specific assessment that could then lead to further advice down the line.

QUESTION: Pedro from Lusa: Two questions. I would like to know more if you can give some information about the ongoing negotiations between the Government and Thailand for the import of some 45 or 46,000 tones of rice. The second regards your initial statement it seems an explanation of normality that I would say no crisis can be expected; this was similar to what happened, it's a general description of the situation in ET like last year and the year before where we saw a food crisis. What are the lessons learned from previous years and how can you be sure that no crisis will affect TL?

Finn Reske-Nielsen: We have seen over the past several months unrest in a number of countries across the globe and of course we have to remember last February we did see civil unrest particularly in Dili as a result of an acute shortage of rice. I think some of the lessons we have learned since then would include that we now have a better monitoring system in place; the WFP programme monitors the price fluctuations on a weekly basis and together with the Government also monitors the inflow of food from abroad and an estimation is done on a weekly basis of the availability of food in the country. It is also encouraging that the Government has activated its National Food Security Committee which is chaired by the Minister of Agriculture which also receives technical support from international advisors as well as from the FAO and the WFP. So a better system is in place to monitor the situation. So when I said the situation is normal and we don't expect any serious problems it is based on this ongoing monitoring and we can say with a high degree of confidence that there is enough food available for the time being and therefore, we do not foresee there being food-related problems in the immediate future. That being said, the global food crisis is a serious problem that would require our concerted attention in the coming months in order to ensure that we keep the situation under control in TL. I do want to stress what Mr. Chana has said that there are also some opportunities that flow from the crisis: Namely that with much higher prices there is much greater incentive for farmers to expand their production and in particular in the short term this second harvest, this crop of maize, is going to help significantly to help alleviate problems later in the year. If handled correctly this could, in fact, have a positive impact on poverty alleviation in the rural areas including on nutritional standards in the country.

On the first question, I'll ask my colleague from WFP.

Joan Fleuren: The only answer I can give is that I don't know about the 45 tonnes from Thailand. But I do know that the Government is working hard on increasing its imports so they concluded a contract with Vietnam for 16,000 tonnes and that's now being shipped and also negotiations are continuing with other countries including Indonesia. But, it may well be with Thailand, there must also be negotiations going on because Thailand is the largest rice exporter in the world and Thailand has not yet closed its borders for exports. And, of course, all these imports are a good solution for the short term to make sure there is no food crisis, but for the medium and long term activities are being put in place that Chan has explained.

Allison Cooper: We're quickly running out of time here, so we'll take two more questions.

QUESTION: I would like to clarify about the IDPs, how will you divide for them. Will they get rice for free because they are victims from two years ago?

Finn Reske-Nielsen: As you know, at the beginning of this year it was decided by the Government to reduce the distribution of food to IDPs to half ration and that policy has been maintained. Initially it was agreed that half rations distribution would only be for the months of February and March but the Government has since decided to extend that and I've bee advised by government that this is likely to continue until June at half ration. In the meantime, the Governments new efforts to support the voluntary relocation of IDPs are ongoing and it is very encouraging to note about 8,000 IDPs in fact have relocated on a voluntary basis and two camps including the camp at National Hospital have been closed.

QUESTION: Jesse from Dili Weekly: Was the UN's decision to hire Roque Rodriques based on a directive from Ramos-Horta and does Finn still stand by that decision?

Finn Reske-Nielsen: We've issued a statement to you on this particular issue and I don't have anything to add. If we have any developments, we'll let you know.