Farmers in Timor Leste have traditionally kept buffalo for rice puddling and ceremonial purposes. Beef cattle were only recently introduced by the Indonesians, with a small herd today of about 160,000 head. But cattle are now held by about 23% of households in TL. Cattle are kept predominantly in low input – low output grazing systems for ceremonial purposes, but more importantly, as a source of “savings”. As one of the few sources of cash income for TL farmers, cattle play an important livelihoods role in many areas.
Well-established cattle marketing systems have emerged to service urban markets in Dili, the informal border trade to Indonesia, and to local and ceremonial markets. Beef consumption levels are low (perhaps 1kg per person per year), but consumption could be expected to increase with population growth and urbanisation. Addressing rural incomes and under-nutrition are priorities in a country with some of the lowest development indicators in the region.
After independence in 2002, the GoTL and donors had to rebuild institutions from the ground up. This provided major challenges but also some scope for experimentation, especially in private sector development. On the upstream side of the chain, there were measures to build market-based animal health and extension systems but effectiveness proved highly variable. “Traditional” cattle management and production practices are resistant to change.
Much of the attention in recent years has been in the downstream sectors, where government – led or supported by donors – have supported private sector development in the larger scale slaughter sector and more “modern” beef retail sector. Health and hygiene standards to expedite the process have been issued but not enforced yet. This effectively represents an attempt to skip industry development paths of other Southeast Asian countries, where centralised service slaughter plants are predominant, complemented by other channels. It will be interesting to track the progress and outcomes of this industry development strategy.