How traditional land management systems are improving soil health in Timor-Leste

Researchers from AI-Com have this week presented new research on the role of tara bandu on maize and velvet bean farming systems—offering Timorese families and rural development workers key insights into how to manage animals and improve soil health, using centuries-old traditional local community practises.

Presented by researcher Joaquina Barreto at the Timor-Leste Studies Association Conference in Dili, the research—conducted by Joaquina with Pyone Myat Thu, Abril Soares, Maria Fernandes, Valerio Ximenes, Anita Ximenes and Robert Williams—is part of an investigation into the use of conservation agriculture techniques in Timor-Leste.

Conservation agriculture

Velvet bean is a common and popular crop for managing weeds and improving soil health along Timor’s south coast. Velvet bean, or Mucuna pruriens, is planted together with maize one month after the maize crop is established. After the maize is harvested, the velvet bean continues to grow, smothering leftover corn stalks and any weeds in the field. This is a cheap, effective and organic method of weed control. And in addition, the velvet bean also acts as a mulch for future crops, and increases the fertility of the soil through nitrogen fixation—taking unhelpful elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere and converting it to the important fixed form of nitrogen, which an essential component of healthy plants.

While velvet bean is a useful, easy and accessible method to use with maize crops, farming families in Timor-Leste have identified livestock control as a key barrier. How do you prevent free-grazing animals from coming into the field, eating the velvet bean crops, preventing the crop from smothering weeds, and compacting the soil with their hooves?

Livestock control

Many villages, or sucos, in Timor-Leste, continue to use the traditional tara bandu ceremony to manage land use and regulate community behaviour. A centuries-old traditional practise, tara bandu enshrines agreed behaviours as local law or custom through an important ceremony, culminating in the slaughter of animals, whose spilled blood turns the land sacred and rules law. Tara bandu has been used in modern-day Timor-Leste to protect no-catch marine environments, determine land use and ownership, and enshrine agreed rules about using traditional farming techniques in a challenging modern environment—like using traditional slash-and-burn agriculture in deforested land, or felling rare trees for wood.

In a range of sucos in the southern part of Manatuto municipality near Natarbora, some communities have been using tara bandu for animal control—regulating how and where animals can free-graze, and enshrining collectively-agreed punishments for breaching these rules.

Our new research was concentrated in these sucos and neighbouring areas—understanding the knowledge level of local families about conservation agriculture, animal control, maize production, and the tara bandu process, and considering families’ attitudes to the benefits and negative impact of tara bandu and its future implementation.  

What we found

We found that sucos applying tara bandu as a way to control free-grazing animals actually did result in improved animal control. In those sucos, farmers needed to fence their crops less, as animal owners did not allow their cattle to roam freely.

This new research offers farming families and rural development workers an opportunity to more easily promote the proven maize and velvet bean farming system in communities—offering a cost-effective, locally adapted method of increasing crop yields and improving soil health for the future, with a local solution available for countering the roaming animals that have proven a problem for farmers in the past.

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