Agriculture in Timor-Leste, some personal observations
by Rob Wesley-Smith

c/o Jonsson
Råsundavägen 24, 2 tr
169 67 SOLNA
Tel. 08-33 62 47
Postgiro 1 81 92-5

For Conference 'Cooperating with Timor-Leste', June 2005, Melbourne

In debate about priorities in the early life of the new nation about growing export crops or basic food crops, I'm firmly on the side of feeding the people first. We need to consider agriculture in its widest context and linked to people's lives, education and cultural priorities, and work from top-down and bottom-up simultaneously.

Agriculture seen holistically is the basis for better health, and can provide health services far far cheaper than health professionals. Of course I refer to preventive health strategies, mainly provision of:

  1. adequate nutrition;
  2. clean water;
  3. sanitation and its integration with gardening; and
  4. shelter.


Many don't grow enough food for themselves due to a lack of understanding of good nutrition and the possibilities for growing food. For example, in towns including Dili, or coffee growing areas with limited land, using pots or edges of small gardens or even rooftops can be used to grow nutritious herbs, fruit and vegetables. Animal wastes, and human wastes, can be used as fertiliser, and mulch composted not burned. When very poor people do grow nice fruit and vegetables they are very likely to sell it for much needed cash rather than feed their families. Extension workers and programs in agriculture and health are needed (ie adult education).

In cattle country many farmers do not or will not recognise that high producing animals need much more feed, and the practice of penning animals at night with no food or water will lead to underproduction or disaster. The resultant skinny cows are not 'sick, mister', but‘starving’. In towns many simply do not recognise that their chickens are growing slowly and that most will not reach adulthood. How best to do the ‘education for life’ with limited budgets and such a disrupted recent past? Many still feel that having fought off the invader they are 'bullet proof', and some time may yet be required before these views soften. Mari Alkatiri said this month that traditional values sometimes mix with religious values and this is what hinders development, and mentioned the danger of inequality between women and men hindering development as well.


East Leste (East Timor, or Timor Lorosae) has a mystique of a jungle-clad misty-mountains landscape, with fertile valley slopes and floors. The older activists would have known about idyllic villages and more than a dozen basic cultural and language groups. All that was needed was more cooperation between the corn and rice growers to spread the labour requirements, and more eco-tourists for some cash input, and this would be paradise revisited. I'm sure there was some truth in that, but since when were the mountains thickly forested?

Tree exploitation took place during the Portuguese colonialisation, though they did eventually plant some teak. But the rate of exploitation rapidly escalated under the Indonesian military regime 1975-99. They cut out all the sandalwood they could find, and it is not clear which vested interests have benefitted from remaining stocks. Importantly they cleared land to remove cover from the armed resistance, by hot dry-times fires, by aerial spraying of herbicides, (eg soon after getting BroncoOV10 aircraft from President Jimmy Carter in maybe late 1977), and by bulldozing (eg in a big way in the mid to late 90s around the resistance centre of Los Palos). These late-cleared plains and plateaus are now being so heavily grazed I doubt they can regenerate without help, even if people want that.

Then the UN administered East Timor, and were proud to cut out the import of cheap kerosene from Indonesia without putting an ecologically viable replacement in place. So the people had to cut the trees for firewood for cooking. In conjunction with the Timorese penchant for burning wherever and whatever possible, heavily cut forests on hills became markedly barer every few months, and the rivers have run browner. Awareness of this seems to have developed markedly only recently.

Why are trees important? Trees and their ground cover of leaves markedly affect the water holding regime, allowing water to soak in and run off slowly or seep out in springs etc, so rivers run slower, longer and cleaner. They may even affect rainfall, they hold the soil together to protect the fertile topsoil, they provide useful products for building, fibres, food, medicines etc, their canopy keeps things cooler in summer, and they help make the environment a pleasant place to be, something aesthetically pleasing to locals and tourists alike, important to attract and keep tourists. [The value of tourism and niche marketing if the whole country stays organic may exceed the value of crop production gained by expensive imported mineral fertilisers.] Agriculture is not very successful in the absence of the more fertile topsoil, of decent water regimes, of mulch and so on.

I think an essential first step is to discourage, even ban, burning of landscapes and leaves, with enhanced study, observation and education following. With increasing populations and environment damage there is no room for traditional ‘slash and burn’ agriculture which some will see as their right. Near Dili the rapidly growing capital, you can drive to Dare and on up past Mana Lu's place, and go through paradise, but also patches of slash and burn agriculture and brown exposed soils on steep slopes just waiting for the first heavy rains to wash the topsoil to the town below. The Dili drains are now inadequate, not because the rain has increased but the sedimentation and runoff has. Protection of Dili, its water supplies, and its reefs and marine life, is urgent. (During the recent Dili cleanup day I was disappointed that most of the cut grass was taken to be dumped or burned rather than being converted on site into compost).

Strategies to improve the tree situation include:

  • less usage;
  • less burning of country and wood;
  • more protection;
  • more planting

Less usage. Alternative or fuel efficient cheap clay stoves are needed, I have developed such but space is limited to describe here.

Less Burning. Burning everything in sight seems to be East Timorese culture or something. [Even in Darwin Timorese people offer to help me clean up my place, which involves raking into heaps all the fallen leaves or mulch and burning it. (Some offer to do this with the papers inside my house)]. Edicts to stop, penalties for not, education, and research to quantify and demonstrate advantage or disadvantage is required. Consultation about culture or alternatives to 'slash and burn' is also required. Even some payments could be considered if longstanding rights are dispensed with in the short term. It should not take long after leaves are left on the ground for water holding and infiltration to improve, worms return, digging become easier, and plants grow better. Are there any disadvantages eg pest buildups? Digging of zillions of small swales (shallow pits perhaps 1m long), beginning at the top of the slopes, is also very important.

Protection. Protection of existing forests and wannabe forests require the above processes too. The best forest I have seen was in Fatomean district, in a 'lulic' or sacred area. I believe that Haburas ngo works with people and the spirits and ancient traditions to protect and replant forest areas. The southern central plains are well forested and care needs to be exercised as these are developed. Control of grazing animals is a must, especially goats. Design and implementation of protection fences large and small is just as important as planting.

Replanting. Replanting is an obvious need in some areas, where protection of areas alone is inadequate. For forests, collection of favoured local species including Sandalwood can be done for cash by older or traditional knowledge folk. Sandalwood growth rates have been improved in NW Australia and it may be useful to buy in some new improved seedlings. Most do not know such seeds must be planted with host plants also, as Sandalwood is an obligate parasite. For tree cash crops the government should provide planning, advice and assistance. High quality hardwood timbers and possibly even some fast growing softwoods eg Douglas Fir, all should be planted as far as feasible in mixed stands including legume trees for ecologically sustainable growth, disease resistance, and aesthetic values. Tree legume shrubs and trees form the basis of quality grazing animal feeding.

Tree legumes use needs to be encouraged for integrated animal production. For example, yards and fences can be living fences of edible trees, there are good examples of this but not enough. Leucaena varieties for fences and feeding probably need some work to get the best lines. Leucaena was reduced by psyllid insect attacks in the late 1980s, so surviving plants are probably more resistant. A pattern of improved production was introduced to Amarasi villages in West Timor and made its practitioners relatively wealthy. Rows of Leucaena were cut for feed to animals in pens or tethered. The falling leaves and the root nodules improved the soil between the rows. Before planting corn between the leucaena, it was severely cut back, and the feed debris steeped in animal waste was spread on the soil, resulting in excellent production of corn and beans. By the time they were ready for harvest the Leucaena had recovered. Despite their success, the method did not spread to neighbouring villages.


Animals produce high quality protein but overall only a modest % of food per land area compared to plant foods. However grazers convert pasture plants or otherwise unused grass and weeds into quality food, recycling such material into readily available nutrients, and are also useful for cultivation, transport and status purposes. Animals may contribute to pest control, especially chickens and ducks. All need to be well managed so they don't overgraze thus causing erosion and ingress of weeds. Goats are probably the worst in this regard and the massive overgrazing and erosion seen near Manatuto is a classic example. Controls are needed, by herdspeople, and/or fencing of damaged areas. Can anyone enforce this under present arrangements? Chickens are most important for human nutrition, and should have creep feeders available to maximise protection and growth.

Cattle. The local Bali or Banteng cows are well adapted and suitable for Timor. They can survive on small amounts of feed, and always have a calf each year, which is born small as a survival attribute. The only purpose of a cow is to grow a calf each year, sorry girls. If it can't do that, then eat it. Yet good nutrition is as important for cows as for humans, they are cows after all and have rights. Growth rates of calves are far too low generally, this is an education and attitude problem, and indicates also a need to provide improved feed, as discussed. The main criterion is: at what age does a cow have its first calf? If 5 years, aim for 4; if 4 years, aim for 3. Pasture introductions are also important, done conservatively to avoid weed problems - I have some seed of Wynn Cassia, Centro Cavalcade and 'Strickland' finger grass ready to go over.

Much the same applies to Goats, Horses, Buffalos, and I suppose Pigs. There is much talk of importing the first two. High producing animals require a recognition of the need to supply high quantities of quality fodder. The 2003 import of Brahman cows to Suai districts, done for the best of motives as these things usually are, was way ahead of its time, and the money would have been much better spent earlier buying yearling local heifers from Oecussi. Some high producing goats are about to be taken to Maliana. At least those involved are more aware of the needs for proper feeding. But how to ensure it, is still to be seen. I also think that modest size horses could well be brought in to increase the size and vigour of Timor ponies which are a bit small and no doubt inbred. Many ponies need teeth attention and probably worming, but this is not recognised. A great option in fact would be to bring in some Murrah milking-type buffalo crossbred bulls from Darwin, to improve vigour generally of the inbred Timor herd, also the original source of Darwin buffalos. It seems that quite a few people drink buffalo milk, which is around 9% fat so high energy, and improving these existing animals may be a better option than bringing in high producing dairy cows from southern Australia. Generally speaking it is far better to concentrate on the animals you have rather than imports - after all, 'breeding is 90% feeding'.


Field Crops. East Timor is not selfsufficient in basic foodstuffs especially cereals due to many factors, including the continued importing of cheap rice following the distribution of emergency aid in 1999-2000. This will probably always deter local production. Other issues that come to mind include the forced dislocation of so many by the Indonesian military occupation, and loss of relationships to traditional lands; loss of some growing and survival skills, such as preserving of seeds for new crops; aspirations for cash and a new life in the cities by many especially young people who would otherwise be providing labour on farms; some feeling that the world will provide; poor infrastructure and support services; the need to reestablish best varieties for each ecological situation, and the skills to preserve those seeds; use of legume mixed plantings or rotations; use of some short-maturity crops for early food; use of mulch and animal wastes as fertiliser; animal availability for farm work; use of machinery including efficient cultivators for animals and tractors, and small mills; protection of both crops and harvested produce.

Protection. People everywhere put money and effort into growing things but don't protect them for a fraction of the costs. In East Timor such losses can lead to starvation, especially in the lean months of the late Dry season/early Wet season before new harvests come in. One hears of rats causing havoc, yet there are all these useless dogs which should be ratters, or perhaps just get eaten in hungry times. Rat-hunting is an instinct, so ratting dogs should be selected for, and some imports made for cross breeding. Harvested crops should be stored more securely, eg in clay pots, drums (eg cleaned 44s), or small purpose-made metal silos as promoted already. People have skills in building small cement brick and plaster water tanks, so allocate some such with close fitting roofs and a small base outlet for use for grain storage. One sees abandoned water tanks which could be used. Of course effective protection must be provided for the crops themselves, for tree plantings, for vegetable gardens and so on.

Weeds are rife through many areas, some such as Bellyache Bush, and the Siam Weed deliberately sown by Indonesia according to many. The effect of overgrazing is to flog off the edible pasture plants and leave weeds going rampant. Weeds take space that can be used for growing food or trees. But many Timorese do not see them as 'weeds' as we do, they are just there. On my April trip to Fatomea and Fatolulic upland districts I thought the grass generally was already well eaten, but all along road edges etc there were hedges of weeds including Siam weed. The villages up there have no electricity, and poor communications. A way to deal with woody weeds and provide fuel for cooking and lights is to build methane digesters, that way people could benefit from cutting weeds by using them as feedstuff for the digesters, whilst getting cooking and lights into the villages.

Pests. We need biological control agents for Siam Weed, and an aphid is already doing a good job on a new pest of coconuts in Baucau and south to Viqueque districts. In Darwin smaller or 'dwarf' coconuts from Thailand have resistance to coconut leaf beetle, and in any case we should introduce new varieties for future food security. The smaller types are far safer and easier to harvest too. Whilst on pests, Darwin now has cane toads on its margins, so at last East Timor can apply quarantine restrictions against Australia instead of it all being the other way round.

What are best development strategies? Each part of the process must make a profit. The Agritas philosophy of supported development including feed programs and end product marketing may be very useful. SWCF, the Soil and Foundation Water Conservation, a Philippine NGO with staff experienced in the adoption of fairly unique low-income rural community methodologies, makes them a very unique NGO to help establish business-driven development supported by the public sector.

Rob Wesley-Smith
Box 2155 Darwin NT 0801
61 8 89832113 0419 807175

Rob Wesley-Smith is a graduate of Rural Science, the first mainstream ecologically based degree course, and then nearly 30 years as a professional worker in government in the NT, not so far from Timor, doing a wide range of research and advice, and 30 years as an activist supporter. From October 1999 to Feb 2000 he helped with seed acquisition and distribution in East Timor, and has been back many times since as a volunteer. He initiated making simple clay stoves to try to alleviate the excessive cutting of trees. In Nov 2003 he took 55 Brahman cattle to the subdistricts of Suai. He has just been back to these districts.

Note on stoves (removed from text)

To target using less timber fuel for cooking, I tried to make some alternative fuel stoves. These would be relatively expensive and metal workshops were not available. Low cost clay stoves, seemed a good option, developing on from a small stove seen from Manatuto. Twenty or so were made there and in Fuiloro, some closer to design criteria than others, and we had a field day with media and ngos at Haburas NGO in Dec 2003. Since then Haburas has gone on with the project supported by USAid, but many being produced are not stoves at all. Many other products could be modified to perform as more efficient stoves, rather than just burning logs without any containment of the heat except maybe 3 rocks, eg try old wheel rims, steel drums, bricks etc. Three key design points that must be considered are: adequate air to the burning fuel; secondary air introduced to the flames to consume the last carbon and create blue flames with little or no smoke; and efficient transfer of heat to the pot. Such a system will use much less fuel, and also improve the health of people in the kitchen. Alternative fuels and solar cooking are also to be encouraged as appropriate. But a question: does smokey smoke sanitize and preserve roofing thatch?