On a thin sliver of flat muddy pasture nestled between sun scorched hills and deep blue tropical seascape, the annual rice harvest is underway in Timor-Leste.
Planting new rice.
Men and women using hand held scythes slice the rice stalks and package them into bundles. Nearby groups of women, their children sleeping peacefully under a canvas shade, use a centuries-old method to sort the rice husks—scooping basketfuls of grain into the air, allowing the wind to sift the heavier and healthier rice away from empty husks.
It will, most farmers agree, be an average harvest in Timor for 2007. Which means they will harvest around 1.5 tons from each hectare.
Rice, along with maize, is the major staple in Timor-Leste and such low yields, though normal, are not good news. In Japan, the average rice yield is around 5 tons per hectare.
If yields could be improved in Timor, it would significantly increase the standard of living of not only the farmers themselves, but other groups in the country’s nearly one million population.
With Japanese financial assistance, a rice irrigation network near the town of Manatuto was significantly upgraded in the last few years, with new irrigation channels and improved sluice gates covering a 660 hectare experimental site.
Local farmers were co-opted into the country’s first Water Users Association (WUA) which is expected to control the use of the water in the irrigation system and then establish a system of fees for the precious liquid.
In 2005, JICA began a three-year project which is effectively Phase II of the overall irrigation scheme.
Traditional marinos control the new irrigation system.
Japanese experts are cooperating with the government and local organizations such as the WUA to make sure the irrigation system yields optimum results.
Activities range from teaching local farmers how to operate and maintain the network, introducing appropriate strands of rice and developing training programs and an efficient management and administration system.
Progress has sometimes been slow, and often involves diplomatic as well as basic technical skills.
Kiyomi Endo, the project coordinator from Hachimantai City, who earlier served both as a JICA volunteer and expert in various Asian countries, said one of the trickiest problems he has faced is the role of traditional gate keepers.
These men, known as marinos inherit the position from their fathers and it is both powerful and lucrative. In return for manually opening and closing irrigation gates leading to the rice paddies, they in turn are paid a 'fee' for their work by the farmers.
The new, more efficient, irrigation network threatened to undercut both their power and their purse. A compromise was eventually worked out. They will now operate the gates of the new system and in return continue to receive a fee.
On a recent visit to the project, another endemic problem was highlighted. Visitors noted that one farmer, a member of the WUA and thus a supporter of its rules and regulations, had dammed one main channel, siphoning water off illegally for a nearby vegetable patch.
The local marino, who is charged with preventing such activities, was reluctant to tear down the illegal dam as a furious argument ensued. "If you stop the water and my vegetables die, the government must pay," the farmer shouted at a government official. Eventually, the gate keeper destroyed the barrier, which probably would be rebuilt as soon as the visitors left the area.
The WUA, key to a successful project, has been developing 'very slowly' according to most officials, but will shortly introduce both a fee system for the farmers and a water distribution timetable.
And in places, things have already improved. Domingos Soares Anton farms one hectare near his village of Sau.
"Before, I could only grow enough rice to feed my family and even then we sometimes went hungry," he said recently. He has been able to harvest two crops annually for the first time and now "we have a little money to spend." He said he hopes to be able to send some of his nine children for higher education for the first time. And also improve his modest village home.
Aleixo da Silva inherited the job of marino from his father and was worried about all the changes and threat to his traditional role. But he grudgingly concedes: "Until now we did everything by hand around here. Perhaps these changes will be good for the future."