Timor Leste is a tiny half-island nation in the South Pacific. Slightly more than one million people live there, mostly in rural communities amid stunningly beautiful landscape. But it is not an easy place to live.
Though Timor Leste continues to suffer the after effects of a decades-long independence struggle with Indonesia (eventually succeeding with a vote for independence in 1999) it is a young country with enthusiasm for change, improvement and great pride in its short history.
While the country is now relatively stable, Timor Leste remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Forty per cent of the population lives in poverty.
Timorese farmers traditionally practised shifting or swidden agriculture – burning and fallowing harvested fields and then moving to more favourable lands in valleys, along riverbanks or on level areas in the mountains. However, conflict and government resettlement policies have pushed farmers to adopt sedentary farming. Deforestation that happened during the years of conflict has had a long-term effect on watersheds and forest resources.
Most farming communities are on fragile lands affected by deforestation. Rice and maize, two of the most important staple crops, are often grown on steep, sloping lands that are highly vulnerable to degradation.
In recent years, Timorese farmers have seen dramatic changes in rainfall patterns that have made traditional practices and planting cycles unreliable. Genetic diversity within the major crops (rice, maize and beans) is limited leaving few options for managing these environmental challenges. In this humid, tropical climate, food losses during storage and in the field are an additional challenge. Improved, locally appropriate storage and pest management are key solutions.
USC Canada in Timor Leste
USC Canada's program in Timor Leste is transforming the landscape. In hillside communities, terracing is reducing soil erosion and improving soil fertility for both home gardening and crop production. Farmers are growing trees and shrubs as windbreaks and shelterbelts, while stall-feeding is helping to restrict animal grazing that would impede the regeneration of vegetation and soils. In coastal villages and upland communities, deforested and degraded hillsides are being restored with stone terraces and tree planting.
USC Canada's work in Timor Leste follows a watershed management approach, with the 18 participating communities strategically positioned around the Laclo River. Using techniques such as soil bunds and stream bank protection, farmers are restoring and enhancing the watershed, reducing erosion, flooding and water contamination.
This varied landscape is being used to grow a diversity of crops without encroaching on the natural forests and grasslands. As a result, participating communities are now reporting eating three meals a day or more, compared to the original baseline of one meal a day. USC Canada's program has been so successful in collaborating with academics, training agricultural workers and providing input into government programs and new seed policies and legislation that it has earned notice from the Timorese government and universities.
USC Canada's Local Partner: RAEBIA
USC Canada began its work in Timor Leste providing emergency funds to rural communities for food and shelter in 1997 and again in the aftermath of the tragic violence in 1999.
The program then shifted focus to sustainable agriculture, concentrating on sustainable livelihoods and biodiversity-based agriculture. Although a direct operational presence was necessary when USC Canada began its work in independent Timor Leste, the context has since changed dramatically. With our support, the once-USC Canada staff group in Timor Leste is now a local Timorese NGO called RAEBIA (derived from two words of the Timorese language Kemak, rae meaning land and bia meaning water and joined to stand for "Resilient Agriculture and Economy through Biodiversity in Action").
USC Canada has paid particular attention to the team's organizational development to ensure that RAEBIA not only has the skills and knowledge to monitor and assess progress but can access funding from sources other than USC Canada.
This video shows the USC Canada-Timor Leste relationship from a few years back before USC Canada's field office became independent:
Core Work: Diversifying Crops & Livelihoods
USC Canada's biodiversity-based program works with entire communities – women, men and youth – to increase food production, mitigate environmental degradation and improve economic opportunities.
In Timor Leste, home gardens provide food for both home consumption and market. We are working to diversify and enhance these home gardens by distributing a variety of seeds for different crops and by training farmers in vegetable and compost production. Crop diversity is not only improving nutrition for farmers and their families but also increasing the quantity, assortment and value of products farmers can sell in the marketplace.
The project is also providing farming families with opportunities to generate supplemental income through activities such as fish production and marketing, food processing and coffee production. Training in livestock breeding, stall construction, forage production, and veterinary care have encouraged animal husbandry and aquaculture.