Using ancient traditions to tackle a very modern challenge.The mountain farmers of Timor Leste

When the mountain farmers of Timor Leste were faced with a series of devastating droughts and catastrophic floods, they looked to their own cultural traditions to help them survive.

For centuries, when faced with big decisions, villagers in remote farming communities used “tara bandu” - a traditional Timorese custom which aims to solve challenges through consensus and without resorting to conflict. Tara bandu - based on collective wisdom and experience - is used to set rules about how people relate to the environment, to animals and to each other and animals. So when fresh water shortages became acute, after years of drought exacerbated by climate change and El Niño weather patterns, the farmers turned to tara bandu.

People in Timor Leste are becoming aware that if the climate is changing, people must change too. In particular, mountain communities must be prepared to protect their land, to store water and to use their natural resources wisely if their children are to continue living on the land of their ancestors,” says Isabel Pereira, a native of Timor Leste who works for GIZ as a senior adviser in the GCCA+ programme there.

 “The relationship between fresh water and the people of Timor Leste has always been complex,” says Isabel. “People live on steep mountains and water has never been easy to find or manage. Now that the rains come too late or all at once, people in the villages must use their old traditions to cope with less water.”

 Timor Leste has been particularly badly impacted by climate change over the past few years. A series of extreme weather events including droughts and floods have resulted in shrinking rice crops, and some farmers have abandoned the land to seek work in the towns instead. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), drought has hit around 350,000 people - that’s nearly a third of Timor Leste’s entire population.

 As is so often the case, climate change impacts carry a significant gender imbalance. “Women and children are the most vulnerable to water shortages,” says Isabel. “We’re constantly thinking about water, and women and children are often busy collecting water. When we are not busy collecting water, we are busy thinking about how we can store more water. Women and girls used to have to walk more than two kilometers to fill a jerry can with water, then carry it back home.

 Now, communities are using tara bandu to agree on ‘conservation agriculture' and climate-resilient water management solutions. This includes digging reservoirs to collect rainfall; conserving soil by moving away from ‘slash and burn’ to ‘chop and drop’ and mulching; clay cook stoves which use less firewood; and growing drought resistant crops such as moringa and dragon fruit, which also have a high commercial value. All these innovations were agreed through tara bandu, within the context of the GCCA+ project, UN and NGO technical experts, so communities can simultaneously honour ancient traditions and ensure their farming is sustainable.

 A recent UNDP report quotes the example of a water supply to 36 households in a village in the northern coastal region of Liquiça, which was repaired and upgraded following tara bandu. One of those whose supply was restored, Antonia Alves de Jesus says that the water is used for cooking, washing and for her garden. “Before we didn’t get water and couldn’t plant, now that we get water, we can plant our garden and also water for the animals.

 Farmers interviewed for a UNDP documentary agree. “We started practicing conservation agriculture in 2014,” says Joao da Cunha, a farmer from Abat Oan in the Manatuto region. “It’s a very good technique because it reduces labour and costs, and increases yields. Despite long periods of drought, there’s still enough water.

 Farmer Armando da Costa from Daisua in neighbouring Manufahi is also happy. “It didn’t rain for the entire month of January, but the maize kept on growing well. I’ll never practise slash and burn again, because that way, when the rains come, the soil gets washed away.

 As Isabel says: “We’re not planning for big and expensive solutions, we take small steps to make a difference. If the climate is changing, then we can also change ourselves. We can use our traditions and our wisdom, and we can build on what we have learned in recent years.