Thursday, 19 May 2016

Australia’s longest running agricultural aid project in Timor-Leste comes to an end

The TimorAg2016 Conference was held in Timor-Leste in April 2016 and was a great celebration of the conclusion of the 16-year Seeds of Life (SoL) project.

The theme for the conference was ‘food security in Timor-Leste through crop production’ and discussions were held around factors affecting crop production in Timor-Leste and the success technical advances have made to improving productivity. Two days of oral papers and posters were delivered across a number of sessions focusing on food security, elements for agricultural development in Timor-Leste, crops and their environments, reaching a food surplus, and communication of agricultural innovations. There were 260 registered participants and the conference was conducted in both English and Tetum, with simultaneous translation.

Day two ended with local farmer Francisca Pinto sharing her story of success. Francisca became involved with the SoL project in 2009, initially as an on-farm-demonstration-trial (OFDT) farmer testing sweet potato and cassava varieties. She then became a Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) contract grower of certified seed and is now an active member of a commercial seed producer group named ‘Unidade Sameklot’. Francisca spoke of the direct impacts the project has had on her family and her life: they now have enough food to eat and enough corn to last them the whole year, sometimes they can’t even sell it all; her and her family no longer get sick for no reason; she has been able to fix up her house and cover the cost of education for her five children; and she is now able to cover the cost of cultural ceremonies, which can be very expensive. It was amazing to hear the impacts the project has had on this family’s life and how excited Francisca was to be contributing to her family’s income.

Francisca Pinto addresses the conference. Photo: Laura Carew, ACIAR
A convoy of white land cruisers made its way out of Dili early on the morning of day three for a field trip that took us to the districts of Ermera and Aileu. First stop was the Cooperative Café Timor (CCT) Learning Centre in Railaco where farmers are trained in the cultivation of coffee, cocoa, mangoes, vanilla and black pepper. Next we visited the site of a community sweet potato and cassava production centre established by the Seeds of Life project in Soleil Kraik, which aims to provide cuttings of released varieties of these two crops for use by the entire community. We even got to sample some very yummy sweetpotato! We then drove on to the administrative centre of Aileu where we visited the MAF district office and were briefed on the agricultural sector in Aileu by the Director of the Municipal MAF, Sr, Galiene Gallos. Lastly, we visited a group of coffee growers which was established with the support of World Vision in coordination with MAF. This group now produces and sells their own roasted coffee as well as selling green beans to coffee traders. The field day provided a great opportunity to get out of Dili and see more of the country and the impacts of not only the Seeds of Life project, but other development projects taking place in Timor-Leste.

The CCT Learning Centre in Railaco, Timor-Leste. Photo: Laura Carew, ACIAR
Sampling sweetpotato in Soleil Kraik, Aileu, Timor-Leste. Photo: Laura Carew, ACIAR

In collaboration with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the MAF, the ACIAR has played a key role in the Seeds of Life project, which is working towards a sustainable national seed system for Timor-Leste. The project has improved food security through the introduction, testing and initial distribution to farmers of improved germplasm of the major food crops: sweet potato; maize; cassava; peanuts, and irrigated rice.

The Seeds of Life project team. Photo: Laura Carew, ACIAR
 By Laura Carew, Communication and Stakeholder Engagement, ACIAR

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