Subject: AGE: New crops boost Timor harvests

The Age New crops boost Timor harvests

By MARK DODD AILEU, EAST TIMOR Saturday 21 July 2001

When it came time to harvest new varieties of sweet potato in an agriculture project in Aileu, an East Timor mountain town, the response was overwhelming - the farmers made off with most of the cuttings.

For Patrick Kapukha, World Vision agriculture manager in East Timor, the theft was the best compliment that could be paid to Seeds for Life, an Australian-funded project that aims to boost local production of staple food crops.

"I suppose it was stealing, but when the local people carried off a lot of vines, this was really an indication of their approval of the quality of the produce," Mr Kapukha said.

The project is a three-year, $1.2 million program funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

It aims to help East Timor's impoverished rural community, which comprises about 90 per cent of the country's population, estimated at 812,000.

New crop varieties, selected for their adaption to local conditions, should improve sust ainable food production in the long term. Any surplus could be sold, providing farmers with money to buy livestock.

Despite a recent surge in migration to cities, a legacy of the violence after the 1999 vote for independence from Indonesia, most East Timorese depend on subsistence agriculture.

United Nations research shows that most of the population lives in about 442 villages on flat coastal strips or in the remote hinterland. Village populations average 1400 but some are as small as 200.

Violence after the ballot added hardship to the already poor rural community. Loss of food and seed stocks, the destruction of farming equipment, irrigation systems and transport assets compounded problems associated with the displacement of people.

However, according to the ACIAR, much of the seed and plant material provided as emergency aid after the violence was poorly adapted to East Timor's growing conditions.

"When you come into a post-conflict situation, where there has been a lot of displacement of people, one of the most important things you can do is restore the plant material of staple crops for the farmers," Mr Kapukha said.

Seeds of Life aims to boost yields for staples such as cassava, green beans, rice, peanuts and sweet potato, an important crop grown during the dry season.

Australian agronomist Colin Piggin, head of Seeds for Life, said a program to introduce new varieties in commercial quantities could take place within two to three years.

The harvest in Aileu resulted in an average yield of 5.3 kilograms per row for the local tuber and up to 27 kilograms for the new varieties.

"That's about a six-fold increase," Dr Piggin said.

The final on the new crop verdict came from the farmers themselves.

All the introduced varieties passed an on-the-spot tasting session by the local community.

Farmer Elsa Ximenes, 50, said: "We are very happy with these new crops. They are much bigger than the old sweet potato. I can already tell they will sell well in the market."

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