Program helps Timor-Leste farmers increase production

An agricultural program in Timor-Leste will enable participating farmers to produce over 20,000 tonnes of extra food this year, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.

The Joint Parliamentary Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee is investigating Australia’s relationship with its small-island neighbour. 

The inquiry has been hearing evidence on numerous issues, including the lack of food and poverty that much of the rural population of Timor-Leste faces.

The Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR), a statutory authority working under DFAT, has been running the Seeds of Life program since 2001.

The program aims to improve staple crops and provide more crop varieties to farmers. 

According to ACAIR around 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture, with many households going hungry for up to four months a year.

In evidence given to the inquiry ACAIR said the program will provide the 31,500 households using SoL varieties with more than 23,800 tonnes of additional food.

Chief executive Dr Nicholas Austin told the inquiry the program’s current goal is to provide half of all farmers better access to improved varieties of staples.

“We would anticipate that will have a significant impact on their agricultural productivity and in time allow connection to markets, so improved incomes as well,” he said.

CARE Australia has helped roll out the program to thousands of families.

Its chief executive Dr Julia Newton-Howes told the inquiry while the program has been very successful, there must also be focus on overall nutrition.

“To overcome malnutrition families also need to understand issues that underline malnutrition,” she said.

“So the program that we have taken out combines increasing the staple crops also with kitchen gardens and encouraging women farmers because women have most of the responsibility for feeding the families.”

“So it is ensuring that agricultural extension work gets to women, that is not only about increasing the staple crop but understanding that for healthy children they need access to a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as protein and fats in their diets.”

The inquiry is holding another public hearing on Monday 24 June where the Canberra Friends of Dili group will appear.

Among several proposals outlined in its submission to the inquiry the group has called for both houses of Parliament to recognise the sacrifice of Timorese people during WWII through a resolution.