There are two distinct seasons in East Timor – the wet season and the dry season.
For many East Timorese, the time in between includes three to four months known as the hungry months, when last year’s supplies of rice and maize have run out and the new season’s crops have yet to yield.
East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta is acutely aware of his country’s annual famine.
“This for me is a most pressing and heartbreaking situation. I see people who cannot even afford to have a proper meal a day,” he said.
“The number one priority for us is food security to eliminate malnourishment.
“Children who are stunted because of malnutrition in the first few years of their lives, they cannot perform too well in school because they are malnourished.
“It takes time, it takes years for us to improve agriculture with better productivity, better seeds, better farming techniques and better roads for the goods to circulate faster and cheaply.”
It’s almost 10 years since East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia.
The steps on its march to nationhood have often been faltering. The departing Indonesian forces left a country in ruins, its infrastructure in tatters.
Political unrest has further stymied progress.
So the impending wet season makes the farmers restless. Everything depends on good rains and bountiful crops.
In the mountains south of the capital, Dili, a woman stabs the earth with a digging stick, bobbing as she flicks seeds into the thin jungle soils, a method unchanged in centuries.
East Timor’s demographics are staggering.
This farmer has five children aged under 10. The national average is eight children per family. Half of East Timor’s population is less than 10 years old.
Of East Timor’s 1 million people, about three quarters live in rural areas and subsist on about one hectare of land.
Infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world.
Children are seen not so much as burdens but as essential labourers, and most endure hard physical work from the age of six, lumping firewood from the forest or produce to and from market.
Of the many hundreds of aid organisations that have worked in East Timor during the past decade, it would be hard to find one more elemental or effective than Seeds of Life.
Rob Williams is an agronomist with the aid agency, which is funded by the Australian Government.
“Seeds of Life aims to do two things,” he said. “One is to increase yields on farms.
“The second is to train East Timorese scientists, East Timorese researchers to a level where they can solve their own agricultural problems so they can do research that assists their farmers.”
Seeds of Life scientists have identified and propagated the best strains of the country’s staple food crops of corn, rice, peanut, sweet potato and cassava.
“We’ve tested these new varieties on thousands of farmers,” Mr Williams said.
“And as a result of this, last year we distributed about 100 tonnes of seed in five-kilogram lots that have gone out to more than 20,000 farming families, so it’s starting to have a large impact on farming families in East Timor.
“The varieties are public domain varieties, which means the farmer can plant them, keep the seed and plant them again the next year.”
In East Timor’s Alieu district, Senor Zacharias Mouzinho Gusmao proudly shows us his flourishing corn crop, a high-yielding variety with large cobs.
It is one of two new corn varieties introduced, tested and released by Seeds of Life in partnership with the ministry of agriculture.
Sold as fresh corn, it has made Senor Gusmao a tidy sum.
Demand for crops
Throughout the country’s farming districts, word has spread of the new, superior varieties, and Seeds of Life cannot meet demand.
In Baucau province in the country’s east, newly installed seed cleaning and bagging machines have revolutionised the process of seed distribution.
And nearby, in a communally planted field, local dignitaries attending a field day are pulling large sweet potato tubers from the red soil.
The new variety is yielding about 18 tonnes per hectare – double the traditional varieties and on par with world standards.
These sweet potatoes are being sold in Dili and for the first time families have some disposable income. Some say they will now be able to send their children to school.
In Dili, agriculture minister Senor Mariano Assanami Sabino says his most pressing duty is overcoming rural poverty.
“And how to realise the dream of the majority of people in Timor Leste,” he said.
“We fight for the independence and continue the fight of how to reduce the poverty in Timor Leste.”
Locally trained staff members are crucial to the success of Seeds of Life.
“We currently have a group of 40 young researchers, mostly graduated from the University of East Timor as agronomists,” Mr Williams said.
“We’ve taken them on board and we’re training them in many, many skills. Some never knew how to ride a motorbike when they started with Seeds of Life.
“Some now can interview in English. They can go out and run a field day by themselves. They work with farmers testing the new innovations. They can conduct their own research experiments to choose the best varieties for their own country.”
One of those trainees, Luis Perriera, distributes the new varieties in the Maubisse region of the country’s central highlands.
“The farmers really like it. I’ve been working with them for the last two years in this district,” he said.
“They can see with their own eyes that the yields are better and they prefer to keep growing the new varieties.
“The farmers themselves will be producing more seed so that they can grow their own seed in future years.
“I think it’s very important work, very worthwhile work because I am working for the development of my own country through agriculture, and in this way we can marry the hard work of the farmers together with the new varieties to get better yields for farmers.”
Rebuilding research stations
Seeds of Life is working closely with East Timor’s ministry of agriculture to rebuild research stations.
“After the violence in 1999 when Indonesians left East Timor, all the research stations in this country were destroyed,” Mr Williams said.
“Many of the trained, professional staff in East Timor were Indonesians who then moved back to Indonesia, so there was a large gap of trained people in East Timor.
“Seeds of Life has a mandate of rebuilding and re-establishing three agricultural research stations in this country.”
Loes Research Station is a 12-hectare site on a fertile river plain several hours’ drive west of Dili.
“The research stations are important to Seeds of Life,” Mr Williams said.
“That’s the locations where we test a large number of varieties on a small number of locations before choosing a small number of varieties to test on a large number of locations.”
Rowan Clarke and his fiancee Rebecca Andersen are Australian agronomists based at Loes with Seeds of Life.
After the violence and civil unrest in 1999, the complex lay abandoned and derelict for almost a decade.
Now it is undergoing a spectacular revival. The land and buildings are being repaired under Mr Clarke’s guidance.
“The story is there was only one building that had been burnt and that was probably accidental,” Mr Clarke said.
“But the rest had just been robbed of anything of any value. All the roofing iron went with the Indonesians. The copper was all taken out of the wiring. The white ants had been through any wood and they were just shells.”
Ms Andersen trained in horticulture and decided to work in East Timor after a holiday there.
She says their work is important for the country’s food security.
“We’ve got about 15 varieties of maize that we’ve got on station at the moment and about another 15 peanut varieties, and about 20 cassava varieties, and we’re also beginning to test kava crops and different types of legumes,” she said.
“I think the ministry of agriculture has the leading priority in the country and so places like this are making a really big impact on food security.”
Watch the full Landline report at 12:00pm Sunday on ABC 1.