The NGO(FSG) is by a group of Timorese who shares the same priorities and goals that focus mainly in the agricultural sector. FSG established because farmers have not benefited from the development process and their life and economic condition have not changed at the grassroots level. The objectives of the organization is to advocate for the development of the agricultural sector as a key to national development agenda for the benefits of farmers.
The AusAID-funded program Seeds
of Life is creating debate in East Timor, where some locals fear the modern
systems of farming taking over the traditional organic methods. Freelance
journalist Nick Sheridan reports.
It’s the hungry season in East
Timor, that time of year when food from last year’s crops has run out and the
next harvest is yet to be reaped. In Guriwai in the country’s east, the farmers
are passing out their corn and peanuts to a visiting group of international
nutrition experts. For Guriwai at least, this year there will be no hungry
Guriwai’s relative wealth has
many causes — cultivation methods, environmental and climatic conditions all
play their part. But it’s the use of new seed varieties introduced by the
AusAID-funded program Seeds of Life (SoL) that has had the most benefit.
SoL has been working since 2001
to identify high-yield varieties of East Timor’s five staple crops — corn,
rice, cassava, sweet potato and peanuts — best suited to the country’s climate
and establish a national seed network to keep local farmers supplied. They work
to the maxim that “seed security is food security”, aiming not just to identify
the varieties that will produce the highest yield but also to help farmers
establish systems and networks for the production and storage of seed from
those crops in the future.
Food security is a big,
contentious issue in East Timor. A predominantly agrarian society, organic farming
is a way of life. Agriculture provides employment for some 80% of the
population; about 40% of households in the nation rely on subsistence
agriculture. But it’s not always enough.
Establishing seed networks is
not the only challenge facing SoL. With traditional farming methods so integral
to many Timorese people and their sense of cultural identity, any hint of a
move towards industrialisation, particularly when driven by powerful outsiders,
is met with suspicion in some quarters.
Ego Lemos is one of East
Timor’s most popular folk singers. He gained international recognition for his
composition of the title song for the film Balibo, but at home his main work is
as a champion of permaculture through NGO Permatil, of which he is the founder.
He has a very different vision
for farmers — permaculture promotes organic, selfsustaining systems, and values
the traditional knowledge of farmers over the modern,
industrial approach of SoL. The
focus should be on promoting diversity in crops and finding ways to improve the
yield of existing varieties. “People need to learn to rely on a variety of
foods based on the microclimates, based on the seasons, not just based on
demand,” he said.
Lemos is not alone. Remigio
Vieira is the general director of the Farming Study Group, a tiny organisation
that examines agricultural policy in the country and runs its own seed
distribution programs, albeit on a tiny scale and focusing exclusively on the
propagation of local varieties. He’s suspicious of the varieties being introduced.
“They only look for how to create a lot of product.
They don’t care about deep inside composition; nutrition. I think that’s wrong.
It’s good to know what the nutritional composition is. You should know,” Vieira
One example: he says the variety of corn introduced
is too sweet and could have a high glycaemic index and lead to health problems
for the people who rely on it for the majority of their diet. SoL is not able
to respond — neither they nor CIMMYT,
the Mexico-based non-profit
that develops and shares the seed varieties, have information on the
nutritional composition of the corn they are using.
There is also widespread
suspicion about the provenance of the seeds being used by SoL, with many
organisations raising the spectre of genetically modified and hybrid products
that will ultimately leave farmers dependent on multinational corporations for
John Dalton, the Australian
team leader of SoL, says there’s an at times willful misrepresentation by the
program’s critics. While some organisations have done such trials in the past,
SoL does not use any of these types of seeds. In fact, Dalton points out, all
seeds have to be open pollenated varieties for the program to work.
Lemos is also concerned the focus on introduced
varieties will ultimately wipe out the traditional corn and sweet potato that
have been growing in East Timor for centuries. Dalton argues the traditional
staples used in East Timor were also introduced, albeit centuries ago. ”The
farmers are going to continue to use the local varieties [so] we don’t reduce
the biodiversity, we actually add to it,” he said.
And as the success of the program to date shows, not
all Timorese share these concerns. Dalton is confident it will hit its target
of establishing 1000 informal seed production groups, and therefore reaching
50% of the country’s farmers, by the end of 2013, two years ahead of schedule.
This about more than hunger. According to the World
Health Organisation, 58% of East Timorese children are suffering from stunting
caused by malnourishment, putting it among the world’s worst affected nations.
Given nutritionists believe stunting can also impair a person’s cognitive
development, it’s a particularly damaging statistic. Some 55% of the population
is below the age of 20, and with a fertility rate of almost six children per
woman, this proportion will continue to grow.
Jessica Fanzo is an associate professor at the
Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University. She is in East Timor to
help advise SoL on how to incorporate a nutritionist bent into their program. “Sixty
per cent stunting is no joke, and to reverse this would take a multi-sectoral approach
that involves big social issues around education, social protection and improving
both the health and food system. East Timor needs to act and do so very quickly
to reverse these numbers,” she said.
SoL is going part of the way to addressing the
problem, but according to Dalton, they cannot do it all.
“We can look after staples, we can use our groups
for education on improved nutrition, we can support other players who are
working in education … [but] it’s got to be a concerted approach,” he said.
However the government is already struggling to spread its budget across all of
its priorities, and the agricultural sector is one of the key areas that is
suffering, receiving less than 2% of budget spending.
That looks set to change over the next few years,
with the Timorese government adopting a long-term strategic plan for the
nation’s development coupled with a program of decentralisation which, it’s
hoped, will empower the country’s districts to do more to address their
individual challenges. But for the program to be a complete success, they will
have to continue to win hearts and minds as well as spreading seeds and crops.