Agriculture in Timor-Leste


Timor-Leste is a small, tropical, half-island nation with a population of approximately 1.1 million, of whom over 63 per cent (Census, 2010) are engaged in crop production. Timor-Leste became independent in 1999, but it still suffers from of the decades-long struggle to achieve this. During 2008 more than half of the nation’s rural population lived below the poverty line of US $0.88 per day.


A typical farming household in Timor-Leste produces a wide diversity of food crops and animals. Agriculturally this mountainous country lies midway between the Javanese rice culture and the Melanesian root-based culture. With features from both directions, its staple foods are the grains maize (Zea mays L.) and rice (Oryza sativa L.) and the root crops – sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas L. (Lam.)) and cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) , peanut (Arachis hypogaea L.), and various vegetables, fruits, spices and tree crops.


Maize and other rainfed crops are usually grown in mixtures in homestead plots or in “slash and burn” fields, often on sloping land; this is usually using farmer recycled seed and no inputs of chemical fertiliser or pesticide. Crops are usually grown without even organic manure, with crop nutrition being reliant on recycling of crop residues or natural vegetation and weeds. Yields are low with national averages of 2.2 t ha-1, while world averages are around 5 t ha-1. Further to the problem of low maize yields and production, there are considerable storage losses of maize, mainly attributable to maize weevil (Sitophilus zeamais).

Food Insecurity

Most farming families suffer from food insecurity producing insufficient cereal staples of maize and/or rice to last a full 12 months. In most farming households, the maize deficit period can range from 1 to 9 months and households are required to purchase maize or rice or rely on foraging from the natural vegetation (SOSEK, 2007). To address this deficit rice imports of around 100,000 t yr-1 are required. Considering that average global maize yields are of the order of 5 t ha-1 there appears to be considerable scope for increasing maize and other crop yields in Timor-Leste.

Climate Change

Timor-Leste has a monsoonal climate with a dry season from around May to October and a wet season from November to April.  The high mountain range running down the length of the island has a big impact on the climate.  Along the south coast there is a bimodal wet season allowing two crops to be planted during the wet season.

Climate change predictions indicate an increase in temperature of around 1.5 degrees celsius and an increase in rainfall of around 0 – 10 per cent over the next 50 years. It is predicted that there will be a greater increase in rainfall in the higher altitudes where the rainfall is higher.  Storm events and heat waves are predicted to intensify.  


58 per cent of Timor-Leste’s population experiences reduced growth as a result of malnutrition, placing it among the worst in the world from a nutritional perspective. Furthermore, 38 per cent of people in Timor-Leste suffer from anaemia: a decreased number of red blood cells often caused by iron deficiency. Anaemia can have severe health consequences. Fixing Timor-Leste’s nutrition deficiencies will require a multi-sectoral approach, but AI-Com has integrated nutrition into our research agenda.