New Crop: Planting Resilience in Timor Leste

Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

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An innovative Catholic Relief Services program in Timor-Leste is showing people how gardens can help them recover from disaster.

Joana Mascarenhas tends a model garden, which demonstrates different planting techniques to help families learn to grow more nutritious foods and sell surplus produce.
Joana Mascarenhas tends a model garden, which demonstrates different planting techniques to help families learn to grow more nutritious foods and sell surplus produce. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

This small Southeast Asian country was only 4 years old when it held its first election in 2006, a test of the new democracy. Tragically, violence convulsed the young nation.

Along with thousands of others, Joana Mascarenhas’ life was upended when her family’s home burned down during election protests.

“Our house was burning, we could take nothing,” says Joana. “We only escaped and ran. We ran to the mountains with everyone from our community. Our neighbors’ houses were on fire too.”

The shock of losing her home and much of her village had to be pushed aside. Joana and her husband, Hermenegildo Lopes, needed to focus on their eight children to get them through the confusion and fear.

“We gathered leaves and made a hut to protect us from the sun,” she says. “But it did not keep out the rain. We had lost all our possessions, but our neighbors gave us some cassava and we could eat that. I wanted to cook, but I had no pans. I wanted to get water, but I had no bucket. Our life in that moment was so sad. The children could not even go to school because the school had burned.”

It was 6 years before Joana and Hermenegildo could rebuild their home with the help of a government grant. But its strong roof and walls did not bring back their lost possessions.

Resilient, sustainable vegetable gardens

CRS is helping families build a safety net against disaster through its REACT project. The project shows people new ways to store their seeds and teaches them how to grow enough nutritious vegetables to keep themselves healthy while still having a surplus to sell.

CRS support teaches new ways to grow maize with limited water.
Hermenegildo Lopes works in his family garden, built with CRS support to teach new ways to grow maize with limited water. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

With our partner Fraterna, CRS helps families establish climate resilient gardens that require very little space. Such small gardens are easily tended and can operate on kitchen wastewater during dry periods.

Vegetable and seed varieties are selected based on their nutritional value, how quickly they grow and their drought resilience. The garden designs also lead to sustainable environmental practices, natural disease and pest control, and safe seed saving and storage.

This June, CRS will also introduce families to Savings and Internal Lending Communities, or SILCs. SILC members contribute to a group fund each week and, as savings build, they can take out loans for large expenses like school fees, farm animals or home repairs. Profits from interest are shared by the group.

“Because 70% of Timor-Leste’s population are subsistence farmers, even small crises like illness can trigger a downward spiral of debt and selling assets to cover that debt,” says Dena Lewerke, CRS program manager in Timor-Leste. “This program keeps families out of that cycle.”

Joana says REACT helped her do just that. With the vegetables she and Hermenegildo grow using CRS techniques, they earn $50 a month. The money builds a future for their kids.

“Now we can eat many vegetables and still sell enough to pay for school,” she says. “Any money we have goes to our children’s education.”

Whether it’s the sudden shock of a fire or typhoon, or a slower moving crisis like changing rainfall patterns, REACT’s simple techniques mean families can succeed in spite of more violence or less rain. Now, Joana, Hermenegildo and thousands of others in Timor-Leste can prepare for, and recover from, disaster.