(Tetum) Happy International Day for Biological Diversity!

Commencing in 2000, the United Nations proclaims each 22 May the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity and global issues surrounding natural variations in species, ecosystems and genetics. Since 2002, each year IDB has a designated theme, including Biodiversity, Development and Poverty Alleviation (2010), Biodiversity and Agriculture (2008) and Biodiversity: Life Insurance for our Changing World (2005).

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Various sweet potato, corn and legume varieties. © Alexia Skok/Seeds of Life

The theme of 2014 is Island Biodiversity, and quite pertinent to Ministry of Agriculture-Seeds of Life’s (MAF-SoL) goals of increasing the biodiversity of staple crops on the half-island of Timor-Leste. MAF-SoL’s activities celebrate the biodiversity of Timor-Leste, while responsibly expanding the genetic variation of staple food crops. MAF-SoL varieties are never hybrid or genetically modified (GMO), and don’t rely on extra inputs such as imported chemicals or high-cost fertilisers.

Biodiversity is vital in maintaining any sustainable ecosystem and can be broken into two distinct paths; conserving the life of the current ecosphere, while increasing variation by introducing suitable, sustainable and tested food crop varieties.

Since its beginnings in 2000, MAF-SoL has followed the natural progression of Timor-Leste’s international genetic exchange. MAF-SoL has imported, researched on-station and trialed in 3000 farmer’s fields before multiplying and disseminating varieties of food crops that improve production, food security and the lives of the nation’s 130,000 farming families and their rural communities.

MAF-SoL varieties are never hybrid or GMO, and don’t rely on extra inputs such as imported chemicals or high-cost fertilisers

Biodiversity in Timor-Leste follows the natural process of crop sharing that has taken place in the Asia Pacific region for centuries. In Timor-Leste where the majority of farming communities are subsistence (meaning the food produced is to feed themselves and their families), a number of different varieties of staple crops had been introduced over a period of 3,500 years, prior to Portuguese arrival. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Timorese farmers had an increased rate at which they tested and tried new varieties that arrived from far-away lands. Many crop species such as maize, rice, cassava, sweet potato, peanut, tomato and chili did not originate in Timor-Leste but were introduced by traders, settlers and colonisers from abroad

These naturally introduced varieties have been tested by farmers, chosen by farmers, kept and stored by farmers, and shared amongst Timorese communities for centuries. MAF-SoL is amplifying this traditional practice by using research and science to streamline the introduction and selection process. This effectively weeds out varieties that are found to be unsuitable to Timor-Leste’s often extreme conditions in terms of slopes, soils, rainfall, elevation, and farmers’ practices.

Overall, the movement of new food crop species to Timor-Leste has been quite limited. One example is there may only be 50 unique cassava varieties now grown in the whole country, when globally there are many thousands of cassava varieties that have not made it to the small nation. MAF-SoL, however, is contributing to the responsible expansion.

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Hohrae 3 growing in Liquica. © Alexia Skok/Seeds of Life

Peanut farmer in Natabora.

Peanut shelling in Natabora. © Jessy Betty/Seeds of Life

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Sweet potato varieties by the roadside. © Unknown/Seeds of Life

Sweet potato has been an intrinsic part of Timorese diets for hundreds of years, and only a small subset of the full variation of sweet potato has landed on Timorese shores. However, the orange-fleshed sweet potato variety, Hohrae 3, was released by MAF-SoL in 2007 and has promptly found itself atop the plates of many Timorese families across all districts. It is extremely popular to grow and eat, has edible leaves and grows in most soil conditions. Hohrae 3 is a good source of Vitamin A and rich in complex carbohydrates to help fight malnutrition in Timorese children.  It also produces more than twice the yield of local varieties in half the time so eases the workload of farmers. Orange-fleshed sweet potato is adding to the biodiversity of the country, as well as to the wealth and health of Timorese citizens.

Introduced MAF-SoL peanut variety, Utamua, is resistant to late leaf spot. This means the peanut tops are leafier at harvest and can be fed to livestock. Another MAF-SoL released variety of maize, Sele, has a strong stalk that is less vulnerable to falling when powerful winds blow. It is resistant to stalk-rot, a disease widespread across Timor‚Äôs maize crops. Meanwhile, the ‚Äúfloury‚ÄĚ maize corn varieties that are grown in the Americas for making tortillas and tacos have not yet been introduced to Timor-Leste.

MAF-SoL respects and recognises traditional farming methods in Timor-Leste and is working with farmers to maintain biodiversity and honour their connection to land and history. Timorese farmers always have, and always will, grow the seeds of their ancestors, meaning diversity will always be maintained. This traditional diversity cannot be regulated and shows no sign of waning.

MAF-SoL is currently undertaking research on nine new varieties aimed to be released by 2017 including purple-fleshed sweet potato, two varieties of red bean, two varieties of mung bean, two varieties of rice and a winged bean.  The red bean originates from Rwanda and is more robust, bigger, higher yielding and better growing than commonly used varieties. It was selected for on farm demonstration trials (OFDTs) in Timor-Leste after being introduced from similarly tough environments in Africa. Without international cooperation and gene sharing, Timor-Leste would not have access to crops with potential to produce well here.

Sadly, the biggest threat to biodiversity in Timor-Leste is the introduction of weeds from abroad, in particular Siam weed (Chromelaena odorata) that was brought over by military trucks from Indonesia. This weed is currently smothering wild areas where grasses and wild foods once grew; reducing the diversity of the wild foods many Timorese eat (both to fill the gap in the hungry season, and because the taste and variety is enjoyed). Weeds are unwanted and damaging to diversity.

The hard work of MAF-SoL is complemented by a parallel project in MAF‚Äôs research component, whose aim is to conserve the genes of ‚Äúlocal‚ÄĚ varieties by collecting commonly used varieties ensuring their genetic purity is maintained.