Monthly Archives: May 2009

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’.


Kristina Winters, our Associate in Chiang Mai

Fri, 15/05/2009 – Jude Fanton

Kristina works with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a local organisation in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Karen people live in both Thailand and Burma where they have their own Karen State in the south-east. They are the third largest ethnic group in Burma. Kristina came for a course at Seed Savers in 2004 and we have kept in contact since then. Here is an email she sent in May 2008.

Karen State was in the past thickly forested but due to unregulated deforestation during the ongoing 60 year civil war, the forests are largely depleted. KESAN, now in its third year, works alongside Karen communities to ensure that Karen indigenous people live a peaceful life in a healthy environment by maintaining ecological balance. KESAN supports community projects based on indigenous knowledge (community forests, traditional medicine, food security) that strengthen the livelihoods of villagers.

The activities of the food security program include seed banks, organic gardens, food security awareness training, seed saving training, livelihood research, and canal projects. The guy I am working with is great as he has a wealth of knowledge and experience. We call him Fukuoka [Japanese growing guru). We are also going to publish in Karen language a book of local traditional recipes we have collected (mainly preserving methods) in 2008, and a book of local agriculture techniques (in 2009) and a seed saving manual (in 2010).


Report from Film Promotion Tour of Vanuatu

Thu, 14/05/2009 – Jude Fanton

November 2008. We come to the end of our seventeen days in Vanuatu promoting ‘Our Seeds: Seeds Blong Yumi’.

‘Our Seeds: Seeds Blong Yumi’ was broadcast with three repeats on VBTC televison. Interviews on Radio Vanuatu and in the Daily Post put the message out to the urbanites and Efate-ans. We presented the film to the Friends of the Museum on Wednesday night, hours after the Election result. It was great to have the Bislama dub, and French subtitles. Numerous people in the street in Vila told us they recognised their culture in the film.

We gave out a hundred DVDs to a range of key people and organisations for public screenings. It was great to meet with both the women and men Fil Workas (field workers that are cultural guardians in rural areas) at the Kulja Senta (Culture Centre and Museum), show them the film, listen to their reaction and discuss the issues with them. Those with DVD players were keen to show the film in their islands to their people. We also had a string of meetings, formal and informal, with the usual networks of relevant NGOs, newly appointed government  officials, advisers and expats and visits to various Nakamals (kava bars).

We met and filmed the food alchemist, Charles Longwah ‘Sarlo’ who collects, promotes and sells more than seventy native food products in his shop and beyond.

Already we have shot some good sequences for the next productions, including a mix of modern and traditional wedding preparations and sharing in Tanna, how people feel sheltered and have positive coping mechanisms in place for crisis. The Year of Traditional Economy was in many minds and an inspiriting theme for our presentations and discussions.