This is what ag R4D is for me
When I started studying agriculture and environmental science at university, never in a million years would I have thought that it would provide me with the opportunity to meet the most amazing and inspiring people, while travelling to the most distant and surreal destinations, working on the most interesting and fulfilling research projects. I’ve been incredulously fortunate to be able to go to Timor-Leste and work with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and Agricultural Innovations for Communities (AI-Com) group to support intensified and sustainable farming systems.
Agricultural research and development assistance projects in overseas countries was something that I hoped to gain experience in and contribute towards, coming from a developing country myself. Giving back to the global community and applying what I’ve learned at university to initiatives that would make a world of difference to smallholder farmers was something that I was drawn towards, as I felt quite obligated, and privileged to grow up and obtain an education in a country as flourishing and prosperous as Australia.
Located in Maritime Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste is a tropical and mountainous nation with a dynamic institutional and social landscape. The small agrarian country’s farming system is based on slash and burn and shifting cultivation; as there are virtually no large-scale farming enterprises. Due to an unreliable monsoonal climate, generally poor and shallow soil and steep terrain, crop yields are often low post-harvest. Subsistence farming is quite prevalent – farmers tend to have no access to markets, planting only what they need to feed themselves.
Timor-Leste depends on its agricultural sector for financial and economic security. The nation’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries estimates that 80% of the population consists of local, smallholder farmers that depend on annual crop yields for survival.
As I arrived at the Presidente Nicolau Lobato airport, I was greeted by none other than Robert Williams, an avid cyclist with a great sense of humour, a knack for Tetun, and as the Technical Director for AI-Com, proved to be a wealth of knowledge for Agriculture in Timor-Leste. Alongside fellow AI-Com researcher Luis de Almeida (and our valiant driver Maun Duarte) we embarked on the famous ‘South Coast Tour’, which involved visiting experimental research plots and farming enterprises in Maubisse, Same, Suai, Betano, Natarbora and Viqueque.
In mountainous Maubisse, Same and Suai, various varieties of mung beans were being trialled to assess which variety could thrive in the south coast of Timor-Leste, where planting time could potentially support the growth and yield of the crop. We also learned about ingenious inputs and resourceful ways in which growers combat pests and insects – like dried coconut kernels for ants and neem tree leaves for bean fly.
We also visited the Betano Research Station, where we met with Felisberto Amaral and Rafael Feliciano. Within the research station there were multiple agronomic trials, from assessing variations in timing for intercropping maize and beans, to evaluating pigeon pea and cowpea varieties through randomised trials. I greatly admired the passion and tenacity of the Betano Research Station staff – they were very committed to the cause, and enjoyed delving into and discussing the methodology and aims of their experiments.
Intercropping trials for maize and beans were also conducted to serve as a comparison for cropping yields at the Natarbora Agricultural Technical School. The students were all very creative and inspiring – everyone had an infectious positive attitude, and all were motivated and eager to apply their skills towards conducting research.
In Viqueque, we visited rice farms that introduced biochar and broadcasting into their cropping rotation, as biochar can be an economically efficient and sustainable input opportunity for farmers to increase their agricultural productivity and yield.
Back in Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital city, we went through an Agricultural Production Systems Simulator (APSIM) training course at the Ministerio Da Agricultura E Pescas (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) building. It was a great way to tie in all that we’ve seen, learned and collected from the ‘South Coast Tour’. We tried to model and predict yields for various crops based on existing weather data, and by modifying various rates and factors such as soil type, sowing rate, fertiliser rate and surface organic matter.
As Asia’s newest nation, Timor-Leste is a country determined to rebuild itself from the ground up.
Timor-Leste presents a wonderful opportunity for students, researchers and scientists to apply theory into practice, and be sure that efforts would have immediate positive impacts to growers and their standard of living.
Based on Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research data, two-thirds of its 1.17 million population live on less than US$2 a day. Consequently, 58% of the population suffer reduced growth from malnutrition, placing the country among the worst in the world from a nutritional perspective. Most rural households are on the edge of the cash economy; each person produces a median value US$378 of farm product a year, but only sells US$41/household/year.
I’ve fallen in love with the country, and the positivity, warmness and kindness of its people. As I embark on my plane and leave this enchanted island, and on to my next journey, I leave with a heightened sense of appreciation and awe towards agriculture for development, and Australia’s engagement in international agricultural research and development. This is what ag R4D is for me.