The Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries (MAF) Betano Research Station is gearing up to host more than 300 Tour de Timor participants next Wednesday August 26. A spectacular 80km ride along Timor-Leste’s southern coast on Day 3 of the race will take the cyclists from Viqueque to Betano. They will be looking forward to a good night’s sleep in Betano before Thursday’s gruelling 1900 metre climb to Maubisse.

The Betano Research Station is a centrepiece of Seeds of Life (SoL), a food security program funded jointly by MAF, AusAID and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Seeds of Life aims to reduce hunger by improving crop yield through the use of improved varieties of staple food crops.

In addition to hosting the Tour de Timor cyclists, the research station also hosts a range of agricultural research activities. Seeds of Life conducts replicated trials of new rice, maize, cassava, sweet potato, peanut and mungbean varieties.  In the south of the country rainfall is spread over a longer period and there are two wet seasons, meaning it is possible to grow two crops a year in Betano. Since 2007 Seeds of Life has tested hundreds of new varieties at the research station.

Local farmers regularly attend field days at the research station, where they can see the yields from the replicated trials and taste test the new varieties. Seeds of Life uses the farmers’ feedback to select which varieties will be trialled on local farms.

Marcos Correia Vidal is one of 21 staff who work at the research station. His responsibilities as a Seeds of Life researcher include trialling new varieties of peanuts, mungbean, velvet bean and cassava. Originally from the Fatuberliu sub-district of Manufahi, Marcos is a graduate of the Universidade Nacional de Timor-Leste (UNTL) Faculty of Agriculture and has worked for Seeds of Life since 2005.

“I really enjoy working on the research station and building my research capacity, designing research, analysing data and publishing research results,” he says. Although he adds that the crocodiles in Betano are an added challenge to conducting research. “They get into the research station through the irrigation water from the river,” Marcos says. “I’ve lost count of how many crocodiles we’ve seen at Betano”.

The Betano Research Station is also used to produce foundation seed of high yielding varieties which have already been extensively tested and released by MAF. The seed storage warehouse currently holds more than 3 tons of rice seed, 13.5 tons of maize seed and 1.6 tons of peanut seed which were produced during the 2008-2009 wet season. This seed will be distributed to Timor-Leste farmers through government and NGO networks for planting in the next wet season. Seed production staff also produce elite seed at Betano, for on-farm trials of new varieties of maize, cassava and sweet potato.

Seeds of Life rehabilitated the 22 hectare Betano site in 2006-2007, and the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, HE Mariano Assanami Sabino inaugurated the research station on 29 November 2007.  Five new buildings were constructed and others refurbished, including an office and laboratory, housing for research station staff, and a storage warehouse. In addition the station was fenced and irrigation equipment installed. Laboratory equipment, a tractor and a seed cleaner machine were allocated to the research station. These improvements are part of the long term MAF plan to develop a strong, well-equipped agricultural research system in Timor-Leste. MAF also use the station for research into animal production, while agriculture students from UNTL regularly visit Betano to conduct their final year research projects.

The Betano Research Station was the first of three research sites to be rehabilitated by the Seeds of Life program. Betano was chosen as there was a supportive local community, ready to work with the rehabilitation activities.

Originally a centre of tractor maintenance and seed production during Indonesian times, the Betano site was completely destroyed in the mayhem that followed the popular consultation in August 1999. Now, 10 years later, the site is the source of new information and varieties assisting Timor-Leste farmers, and the Betano community is looking forward to welcoming the Tour de Timor.