Timor Leste's lush rain forests and hardwoods have long been a major resource for its communities. Mirroring similar trends across the world, however, the island's forest cover has decreased by an estimated 50-70%, - or by almost 30 percent between 1972 and 1999 alone. This leaves around 41 percent of Timor-Leste's land forested, with the occasional small pocket of primary forest still intact.
And yet, depletion of the country's forests is continuing. Precious hardwoods such as sandalwood or teak have been almost completely eliminated, while agricultural expansion is adding undue pressure on the remaining forest cover. Slash-and-burn farming, a practice where farmers prepare the field by burning incumbent vegetation, frequently results also in forest fires and forest degradation. Cleared land along the slopes, on the other hand, has exposed upland farming communities to landslides and soil erosion, further fueling the need to clear more land for farming.
Forest rehabilitation and conservation activities are thus key components of the projects supported by the GEF Small Grants Programme in Timor Leste, which awarded its first round of grants to 27 organizations in late 2013. Among the most common issues addressed by SGP projects include reducing land clearing for farming and shifting agricultural cultivation towards more sustainable practices. Although the projects are still ongoing, the projects are showing important progress has been made. For example, by April 2014, communities had already planted approximately 22,450 tree seedlings on their farms and other degraded land areas. This amounted to around 20 hectares stretching across five districts. Another 150,000 forest tree and fruit tree seedlings were planted again during the rainy season last fall to rehabilitate degraded forest areas and to secure soil in upland farming communities.
Farmers also learned about effective, sustainable agricultural practices that reduce the need to clear new land through various education and information sessions. One of the farming techniques introduced is that of establishing terraces on the sloping areas to control soil erosion and landslides. To supplement training in this new technique, the organizations helped farmers establish pilot terraces in four communities, covering five hectares of land. With this, the partnering organizations hope to effectively train and demonstrate the advantages of terracing and crop rotation. Among the expected benefits is increased soil fertility and water retention, and thus improved yields. Experimental home gardens, which introduced cabbage and other easy to grow vegetables, have also been created and help communities move towards food security and alternative income generation.
Besides agriculture, Timor Leste's growing population also depends on non-wood forest products, such as bamboo, rattan and grasses for housing; honey for food and medicine; palm wine; and medicinal plants. Over the last decades, the loss of forest cover had increasingly resulted in extensive soil erosion and landslides, leaving farming communities highly vulnerable and food insecure. The GEF Small Grants Programme in Timor Leste, which received a grant budget of USD 1.1 million for the current operational cycle, aims at helping communities preserve the environment and its ecosystem services upon which they rely for their livelihoods.
Title photo credit: Jess Fanzo