Farmers on the frontline of innovation in Timor-Leste

On a sunny Tuesday in Bobonaro municipality, to the west of Timor-Leste’s costal capital, Dili, six farmers are happily packing rich black dirt in around their new sandalwood tree seedlings.

With their scuffed-up sandals, worn-out polo shirts and dirt-crusted fingernails, they don’t look like what you’d imagine if you thought of a scientist – but they’re natural experimenters, who have been testing techniques on-farm for generations and know better than anyone what works in their soil.

And now, they’re leading new experiments that could determine novel ways of growing and conserving the country’s highly vulnerable and nationally precious Santalum album tree.

The Timor-Leste tree

A small tropical tree commonly known as sandalwood, Santalum album is indigenous to Timor-Leste and Indonesia, and has played a key role in Timor-Leste’s history and economy.

But due to over-exploitation and illegal logging, the country’s sandalwood population has dwindled to nearly nothing, and the remaining trees in rural locations are highly vulnerable.

But this new research could add a new solution.

Reforestation efforts by the Government of Timor-Leste have seen over 80,000 sandalwood seedlings distributed to farmers across nine of Timor-Leste’s 13 districts, and guidelines published for how to grow sandalwood.

Now, a new initiative from AI-Com is supporting these efforts by investigating new ways of growing sandalwood.

How to grow better sandalwood?

Eight farming families across two municipalities are growing sandalwood seedlings with forage tree legumes like Leucaena, Ai-kafe, and Sesbania grandifloraAi-kala. The sites will investigate where the semi-parasitic sandalwood grows well with these leguminous trees, which fix nitrogen, feed cattle, and improve soil quality.

Partner farming families were already growing Leucaena and Sesbania as cattle feed, under the smallholder cattle project, Rede Kamodi, which like AI-Com is a research initiative funded by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

Better outcomes for farming families

AI-Com aims to sustainably intensify farming systems. Using existing forage legume trees to support sandalwood growth could create an economic opportunity for farmers, maximising the use of their land.

Sandalwood seedlings were planted last week on six farms in Aidabaleten village in Bobonaro municipality, near the Atabae location of the Ministry of Agriculture’s new, 100 ha sandalwood plantation, which was opened in January 2017.The European Union has estimated the plantation could be worth up to US$160 million in 30 years’ time, when the valuable sandalwoods are mature for harvest. 

Sandalwood seedlings were donated by the Global Climate Change Alliance Timor-Leste.

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