Plataforma de conocimientos sobre agricultura familiar

''Community Ownership can create change: Experimental participatory learning brings better life in Timor-Leste''

It was another hot and humid day, another power cut, the generator groaning in the background. Fans were spinning and pumping hot air around as the A/C didn’t work with the generator. I looked around the office, everyone seemed bored, scrolling through Facebook, chatting occasionally. I felt sad that there was a listless feeling throughout the building – like people were waiting for something to happen. The staff were as lethargic as the air around them, but it wasn’t just today. It was like this every day. 

George (my then co-worker) was busy with his work with the FAO on the campaign to prevent Avian Influenza from coming into Timor-Leste. We shared offices with the Extension Workers and other Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (the Ministry) staff. I commented to him that there was so much potential in the room that felt wasted with people just sitting there. All the studies they did at university or agriculture school, the hope of starting a career in agriculture. They dream that their work could create some change for the country by working with farmers and their livestock. 

Fast forward 12 years. George is now working as a Project Officer with the Ministry, working on a sustainable agriculture project. He is now based in the centre of Timor-Leste in a little town called Ainaro, high in the mountains, surrounded by cliffs shrouded in clouds. Much less need for A/C there. 

The rural environment in Timor-Leste is under severe pressure, with rain-fed land used for unsustainable small-scale subsistence farming.  Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood in Timor-Leste, with over 80% of the population engaged in it.   

Doing what they have always done

Since its Independence in 2000, Timor-Leste has had a continuous stream of international agencies and NGOs wanting to help the “new” country with various projects. They would come to a district or suku (village) with great ideas:  trying to get the community involved, handing out grants or seeds, running training workshops - often telling them what is the “right” way. But then when the project was over, they would leave again. Sometimes there was a change, but often things would return to the way they were. The same could be said for the Ministry – doing what they have always done, sometimes trying these “new” things, but when the project was completed, or the budget cycle was over, things often reverted to the way things were.   

George and I were chatting about his new job. He said he felt he was having déjá vu from all those years ago about the Extension Workers. Another location with different faces, but that same feeling of nothing happening. 

He felt resentment from the Extension Workers aimed at him, from yet another project being imposed. They seemed reluctant to join in. He detected cynicism from the local head of the Ministry who saw it as just another project that probably wouldn’t work and then they would leave again. He said there were different people linked with the project wondering what they could get out of it; from local authorities to farmers wanting handouts to supplement other unrelated things. 

Trying a different approach: learning by doing

But George hoped that this project was going to be different, it was why he decided to take up the position. It was taking sustainable watershed planning as the foundation for agricultural development, not something that had been done in Timor-Leste before. Approaching sustainable agriculture through the entire catchment of Bealulik River: sustainability through agriculture, the environment, economically, as well as with a community approach of working together. It was a project by Timor, taking agriculture to the next level. Though it was funded by the World Bank, they would be somewhat hands-off. 

The aim of the project was close to George’s heart, it was learning by doing. It included everyone in the community, especially village leaders, to be actively involved from the beginning and play a vital role as collective decision-makers rather than just as implementers of top-down project planners. George said that it was about building the capacity of Extension Workers, in collaboration with experts from MAF, to be facilitators of the farmers' “experimental learning”. Rather than giving ineffective recommendations that cover large geographic areas that may not even be useful or relevant to farmers, this method trained Extension Workers and the Ministry staff to work with farmers in testing, assessing, and adapting a variety of options within their specific local conditions. It was also about increasing the knowledge of farmers to make informed decisions on what works best for them, based on their own observations through demonstration plots, and to explain their reasoning for such decisions. There was also hope that the spillover effect of this project would strengthen the Ministry’s planning, monitoring and evaluation functions. There was hope that the project would act as a catalyst for a more effective and responsive agriculture sector for the whole of Timor-Leste. 

He said at least we have hope this could happen.

Four years later, a different sense of change and hope

It is now four years into this six-year project. George is sensing change, positive change: in the Extension Workers, in the attitude of the farmers, the Village Chiefs, the senior staff of MAF in Ainaro, and even with the driver of the project. 

While this part of the project was huge, (175 groups from the 12 suku’s in the catchment), he felt the new approach of being inclusive with ownership was starting to pay off. This project seemed fairer than other ones, as everyone from the community had the opportunity to be involved. They all have the same access, which is not often the case in Timor-Leste.

I can see in his mannerisms and attitude, that George has a sense of pride in this project. Much of this was from seeing things coming to fruition and now there were tangible outputs and a shift in attitudes of all involved. 

George could see that the Extension Workers were seeing their work as something worthwhile.  Previously they really didn’t understand their function; they just did their jobs: distributing seeds or tractors, or giving fertiliser, and never really seeing any change. But now they have activities to do and have learnt new skills and techniques. They felt appreciated and instead of criticism from the government, they were feeling involved in the community.  They started to really understand what it meant to be an extension worker.  They were happy and busy; they have found their feet. He was surprised and proud of the change in the Extension Workers.

He was determined to include the driver in his work because of his interest in farming; and instead of sitting in the car waiting for a meeting to end, the driver was in there learning too: now sharing advice and ideas with the farmers, deep discussions about the decisions they were making.  He was finding his feet too.

People participating in their own process

George saw a new positivity that he hadn’t seen for a long time. He saw that people were empowered and had control over what they were doing. He believed that this new participatory approach was key to this.  While it has been a long, hard few years for everyone involved, with many ups and downs, people were sensing a change and maybe long-term success. 

It is very common in Timor-Leste for people to expect certain things in return for going to meetings associated with big projects, like food and transport, t-shirts etc. But now when George and the Extension Workers visit projects or meetings, food from the people’s own gardens and coffee are served. No one asks for handouts. 

Everyone always talks about having ownership of a project and when you feel part of a process, truly part of it, then you will get the change you want. But you don’t often hear about inspiring government staff who can create that change.

There are many pathways to sustainable agriculture, but maybe one is through the empowerment of Extension Workers which has the potential to be a fabric for long-term sustainability in a specific context. As George sees it, this project might actually be making that real long-term change, or he is really hoping, but time will tell, the early signs are there. Maybe ownership does create change.

This story was written during the Writeshop ''Learn to write your own Agroecology Stories of Change'' held in June 2021 and organized by Barefoot Guide Connection, Agroecology Knowledge Hub and Family Farming Knowledge Platform.

Autor: Nichola Hungerford
Organización: Barefoot Guide Connection, Agroecology Knowledge Hub and Family Farming Knowledge Platform.
Año: 2022
País(es): Timor-Leste
Cobertura geográfica: África
Tipo: Artículo de blog
Texto completo disponible en:
Idioma utilizado para los contenidos: English

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