Poor farming families in Timor-Leste have been able to sell some of their surplus crops in the local market for the first time.
An agricultural development program, Seeds of Life, has lifted them out of enduring hunger to the point where they have supplementary income to spend on family health and education.
Seeds of Life, supported by the Australian Government and the Timor- Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), has recently entered its third stage with a $27.5 million grant over the next five years. The project is a collaboration between the MAF, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), AusAID and UWA .
The Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLI MA), within UWA 's Institute of Agriculture, co-ordinates the Australian-funded activities.
Timor-Leste is among the world's poorest 10 countries, in spite of increasing oil revenues. Around 40 per cent of households rely on subsistence farming and face food security issues every year, with 50 per cent living below the basic-needs poverty line.
Periodic hunger is a fact of life in rural areas and food insecurity affects the most vulnerable people in society - the poor and households headed by women.
Winthrop Professor Kadambot Siddique, Director UWA Institute of Agriculture, is overjoyed that UWA will play a significant role, to continue the Seeds of Life project.
"We worked hard, to win the Seeds of Life II project, back in 2005," he said. "We brought in $10.22 million over five years and started research and development to improve crop yields in Timor-Leste.
"The first engine of growth in any country is always agriculture. Before Seeds of Life, there was no capacity for systematic, strategic crop improvement, agronomy, seed production, storage and distribution in Timor-Leste.
"Shipping food to hungry people is a short-term approach. To save those people and help them to develop their own crop production, we need a whole system approach.
"When Timor-Leste won its independence, there was no system in place for agricultural research and development. The Indonesian regime always brought in whatever food was needed from elsewhere. The only crop they exported from Timor-Leste was coffee."
Seeds of Life I was a very early phase in the long-term project. Initial work was done by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the project was not attached to any university. It improved farmers' access to a range of crop varieties adapted to the varied environments in Timor-Leste and built capacity in the MAF to evaluate, produce and distribute improved germplasm.
In 2005 Seeds of Life II (SoL II) saw the employment of Professor Harry Nesbitt in CLIMA and Timor-Leste based staff to undertake the project activities, and the first post-graduate agriculture student coming to UWA from Timor-Leste.
"Our first PhD has completed and returned to the National University of Timor-Leste to continue working on improving crop yields and training agricultural science graduates for his country," Professor Siddique said.
SoL II improved Timor-Leste's food security through increased productivity of major food crops: cassava, maize, rice, sweet potato and peanuts. "
UWA led SoL II from 2006, concentrating on implementing research and demonstration trials on farms," Professor Nesbitt said. "After five years testing on farmers' fields, we've found significant yield advantages: in maize of 47 per cent, in peanuts 47 per cent, rice 24 per cent, and sweet potato more than 60 per cent, accompanied by improvements in size and eating quality.
"As a result, MAF released nine new crop varieties. Some farm families have benefited to the extent that they are now selling agricultural excesses for the first time, commonly spending the income generated on family health and education."
Professor William Erskine, Director of CLI MA said Seeds of Life III, launched at UWA last month, builds on the previous two phases and aims to establish a seed supply system that will ensure, by the end of the five year period, that more than half of all lowland and upland farmers in Timor-Leste are planting improved varieties of food crops.
Following the success of the first PhD, three Masters students are currently studying at UWA with more planned.
"A particularly important success of the program has been its insistence on integrating a gender perspective into all aspects," Professor Nesbitt said. "Over the past five years, we have supported the formation of 28 women's seed production groups and actively sought women's participation in the farm trials as they benefit from learning about the new varieties."
He has visited their country frequently over the past several years. "I can see a difference in the people when I go there," he said. "The farmers are happy; they can see the potential for improved crop production in the near future.
"This is a wonderful program which will have a long-lasting footprint. Within the next decade, we will see prosperity in Timor-Leste, which will lead to fewer problems, and eventually peace in the region," Professor Siddique said.
Published in UWA News, 22 August 2011