Promoting Local Seed Systems in East Timor

Fri, 15/05/2009 – Michel Fanton and Amy Glastonbury

Raising awareness of the current level of seed diversity in East Timor and dispelling myths about the benefits of imported seeds over locally adapted seeds.

Training in Oecussi: During their two-week visit to East Timor in November 2002 directors of Seed Savers, Michel and Jude Fanton, went to Oecussi, the remote and resource-poor enclave in West Timor. There they ran a one-week workshop on seed saving for a group of trainers in Caritas Australia, a Catholic aid organization.

Surveying Local Seed Diversity On the first day of the workshop, Michel and Jude went with the participants to the local market in Tono to ascertain the extent of local seed availability and diversity. About one hundred and fifty women, many from the mountains, were selling their produce. The participants surveyed how many species and what local and imported varieties they were selling.

Back in the classroom they recorded the results onto charts for future reference and as a model for regular surveys. Community trainers in Oecussi with Jude in red dress and Michel Fanton in dark pants on right Sharing Local Skills and Resources During a visit to a women’s community garden, the coordinator showed the group the seeds that she had kept, including Chinese cabbage, chillies, eggplant and bitter gourd. They were stored in a sort of sausage skin made of plastic sealed with a hot knife. Of course this is not impermeable nor much protection against insects, but a step in the right direction. Better local seed storage methods were to hang the seeds from the roof in the kitchen smoke then store them in a waxed bamboo joint.

Michel and Jude also went with the participants to a woman’s garden on the edge of the capital, Pante Macassar. They had noticed a large number of lettuce seed heads from the road and went to ask her if they could have some to use for a cleaning exercise and to practise swapping. All the participants in the course were agricultural trainers so they asked some good questions and in fact it became a one-hour dialogue with everyone contributing. There were two lettuce varieties: – a Korean one with white seeds and one with black seeds obtained in Australia by the woman’s daughter. The Timorese inherited culinary habits from the Portuguese so lettuce is popular.

Resilience of the Traditional Farming Systems During their many visits to local markets and gardens, Michel and Jude found a surprisingly high diversity of local varieties available in East Timor despite twenty-five years of disruption to traditional farming systems. Some seeds at the markets had been sourced from within East Timor, some had come from aid programmes, such as Caritas Australia’s, while many had come back in from West Timor. Some market sellers appeared to be selling what they grew themselves, having saved the seeds since they acquired them. Passionfruits grow prolifically. Girl in Oecussi under trellis

Local Seeds Versus Imported Seeds Throughout the workshop, discussions were held regarding the appropriateness of local seeds as opposed to imported seeds. Many aid workers who visit East Timor believe that there is a shortage in the supply of food varieties as farmers frequently ask for seeds. Often however the farmers are just after the novelty of imported seed believing them to be better than seeds obtained by home saving or swapping. This misconception is probably perpetuated by the fancy packaging of imported seeds and the widespread feeling that East Timorese resources are inferior to Western goods.

The Easy Option of Supplying Seeds Too few expatriate aid workers and local extension officers in developing countries recognise that villages have their own traditional varieties of food plants, both wild and cultivated. Often aid organisations, keen to be seen by their supporters to foster self help and also keen to give some instant help to their recipients believe donating seed is the best way to go. Providing imported seeds however often exacerbates food security problems by displacing local seed varieties. These imported seeds may also not perform well especially in drought years and on poor soils, jeopardising farmers’ food supply. Valuing Local Seeds and Systems This approach overlooks or at worst ignores seed systems already in place. More often than not, villagers are practising seed multiplication and distribution, both formal and informal. They often have village and individual seed banks not visible to the casual onlooker. The Seed Savers’ Network encourages the validation of farmers’ seeds and knowledge. Assistance is directed towards the production and distribution of local varieties.

Technical support is provided so that budding seed producers have a better chance of producing quality local seeds. Back in Dili After the workshop in Oecussi, Michel and Jude returned to Dili where they held a seminar for twenty-two representatives from local and international non-government organizations. The focus was on raising the awareness that there is a strong local seed culture in East Timor. Michel showed digital images of the seed diversity found at the Oecussi markets to illustrate their presentations. On the last day of their trip, Michel and Jude ran a one-day workshop for the staff at Caritas Australia in Dili to build an office garden to provide food for the staff and as an example of home food production in an urban environment. Further Reading In East Timor, as in many other developing countries, support of traditional seed systems is needed. Michel and Jude in their travels overseas have found farmers undervaluing their own seeds and desiring imported varieties over and over again. This issue is not new. Michel has written about it in a discussion paper called ‘Supplying Seed Aid in Disaster Areas’.