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PROJECT: CIM/2009/049: Seeds of Life 3
CONTACT: Dr Paul Fox,
+61 2 6217 0500, email@example.com
PARTNERS MARch – MAy 2011
varieties, farming methods and crops quickly
moved them from hunger to comparative
prosperity. After reviewing SoL’s progress, he
was keen to restore food security in East Timor
and recommended the program continue.
Funded jointly by the East Timor MAF,
AusAID and AcIAR, SoL 2 began in 2005 with
Dr Nesbitt assuming the program coordination
role through his post at the University of
Western Australia’s centre for Legumes in
Mediterranean Agriculture (cLIMA). Plant-
breeding specialist Rob Williams, who arrived
in East Timor in 2002 to “put food in bowls”, was
appointed Australian team leader.
Together, they were determined to build on
SoL’s early achievements to arrest hunger. More
than half the rural population was struggling
to derive income from one or two hectares.
But with food shortages largely attributed to
poor agronomy and high crop failure rates—
resolvable issues in Dr Nesbitt’s eyes—there
was potential to develop market-driven systems
to support rural development in East Timor.
Among its major achievements, SoL 2
released nine new varieties of five staple
crops—maize, sweet potato, cassava, rice and
peanuts. Selected from hundreds of hopefuls,
the varieties were subjected to rigorous
research including field trials before seeds were
disseminated to about 10% of farmers across
“ We import varieties that don’t rely on
farming inputs, such as fertiliser, because the
farmers don’t have cash,” Dr Nesbitt says. “ We’re
exclusively using non-GM and non-hybrid
varieties that are suitable for subsistence
farmers and can be adapted to a wide variety of
to invest about $120 million each year on vital
But the work most crucial to meeting the
nation’s food security challenge originated in
2000 under the leadership of Dr colin Piggin,
AcIAR research program manager, and SoL’s first
on-the-ground project leader, Dr Brian Palmer.
credited by their successors, Dr harry
Nesbitt and Rob Williams, with “developing
the foundation blocks that SoL was built
on”, Dr Piggin and Dr Palmer worked under
challenging conditions, initially in the absence
of government order.
Most qualified personnel had left East Timor
and the establishment of the Ministry for
Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) was gradual
under the new Timorese Government. In the
meantime, emergency seed was brought
Maize farmers in an on-farm demonstration trial plot in
the Alas subdistrict of Manufahi, East Timor.
from Indonesia through the Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO), while the
AcIAR team imported germplasm from similar
agroecological regions using the networks
and supplies of the consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research (cGIAR).
Notwithstanding the loss of infrastructure,
Dr Piggin and Dr Palmer acknowledged that
in East Timor’s small cropping area (about
336,000 hectares for 140,000 rural households),
agriculture was compromised by unsuitable
varieties and reliance on rain.
With hands-on support from non-
government organisations (NGOs), including
World Vision International and catholic Relief
Services, they yield-tested prospective crop
varieties including sweet potato, maize, cassava,
peanuts (groundnuts) and irrigated rice.
“SoL 1 had some good outputs,” Dr Nesbitt
says. “It identified higher-yielding technology
options that were better adapted to local
conditions including pest, disease and
When he arrived in East Timor in 2003, Dr
harry Nesbitt was part of a team that had just
completed the difficult task of resurrecting
cambodia’s agricultural system.
having witnessed the destruction wreaked
by the Khmer Rouge, Dr Nesbitt expected the
situation in East Timor to pale in comparison.
Instead, he encountered a country whose
controversial history made it a unique crucible
for testing the effects of agricultural research
on food security. In post-genocide cambodia,
Dr Nesbitt’s work introducing farmers to new
East Timorese women
shucking corn grown
in the early days of the
Seeds of Life program.
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