This is a farm: Agroforestry feeds communities in Timor-Leste

July 9, 2020

Tomas Pinto grows an astonishing blend of different foods in a very small area. Using agroforestry, he is feeding his community in Timor-Leste.

Agroforestry feeds communities in Timor-Leste and Tomas Pinto shows a coffee tree in this photo. He is holding a leaf, still attached to the tree in between his thumb and forefinger.
Can you spot the coffee plant? When you support shade grown coffee you support the rich biodiversity that surrounds it. (Katie Breen/SeedChange)

To the untrained eye it might look like a scruffy forest with a messy understory of weeds. But on closer inspection, Tomas Pinto has created a multilayered ecosystem rich in biodiversity. Under Tomas’s careful stewardship, this forest feed communities in Timor-Leste.

Agroforestry feeds communities in Timor-Leste. This is an image of the forest floor featuring branches and a large-fronded plant.
Spot the food crop! Taro grows on the forest floor surrounded by fallen branches and plant materials that will slowly decompose and add organic matter back to the soil. The taro root is an important starch in the local diet. (Katie Breen/SeedChange)

This is agroforestry.

To people accustomed to seeing crops grown in straight, neat rows, the idea that a farmer would encourage such a complex jungle may seem odd, or inefficient. But Tomas, the chief of his village, Batara, grows an astonishing volume of different foods in a small area: coffee, pomello, avocado, banana, taro, palm, corn, cassava, and variety of vegetables and herbs.

Despite appearances, this is not a random forest. It’s fully intentional—from the timing of planting and the spacing of different crops, to the creation of contour lines and terracing to hold soil and organic matter in place. Tomas even considers how water will infiltrate the different layers of crops.

Agroforestry feeds communities in Timor-Leste. A woman in a baseball cap shows her phone to two men who are smiling while looking at the screen. The scene is framed by a concrete bin that has a wooden structure built over it.
Tomas Pinto tours Jane Rabinowicz and Mateus Maia (executive directors of SeedChange and RAEBIA, respectively) around his farm. (Katie Breen/SeedChange)

The result is a fertile farm, teeming with life from the upper canopies of the fruit, nut and palm trees to the decomposing leaf litter on the forest floor. The farm produces a diversity of crops for local market sale, and export, meaning not only a diversity of crops, but a diversity of income streams. Plus, it means good food on the table at home: agroforestry feeds communities in Timor-Leste.

Many of the skills Tomas used in creating his food forest came from SeedChange-supported training, provided by our local partner organization, RAEBIA (Resilient Agriculture and Economy through Biodiversity in Action). The community seed bank we support in Tomas’s village serves as a storage facility for local seeds and as a training facility where farmers can share their knowledge with each other.

Agroforestry feeds communities in Timor-Leste. Brown organic mulch covers a large section of the ground. Maize grows around the edges of it.
Spent coffee husks in the foreground provide a rich layer of mulch and organic matter for growing corn. Chickens scratch around in the understory adding additional nutrients with their manure. (Katie Breen/SeedChange)

When neighbouring farmers notice the results on Tomas’s farm, they start to replicate what they see. They too begin using agroforestry to feed their communities. Together, farmers in Timor-Leste are using local solutions to address long standing issues of food insecurity, access to seed, and soil fertility. Over time, they’re improving their farms.

The proof is in their fields: agroforestry feeds communities in Timor-Leste!