Photo essay: Behau field trip

Last week, RAEBIA hosted a group of participants at our resource centre in Behau, Manatuto, for a field trip that was part of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s climate change conference.

UNFAO showed conference delegates examples of work that local communities are doing to fight the effects of climate change – at RAEBIA’s resource centre, that’s things like rainwater storage, compost making, and terrace farming – and I was invited, with the DSLR, to come along.

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My xefi and I arrived early – unusual for both of us – and were treated to a coffee before anyone else arrived. I loved watching the tiu ladle coffee from the steaming teracotta pot, and watched him laugh when I told him I didn’t want sugar (a very un-Timorese way of taking coffee).

We drank our coffee with these excellent Timorese dosi – snacks – that I don’t know the particular name of: thin, sweet-tasting rice vermicelli noodles deep-fried into a cylindrical net. Soo good. Then, we heard the crunching of tyres heaving themselves up the sharp, rocky slope, and got up to greet the visitors.

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We walked up the narrow track that leads down the the resource centre to meet the FAO group. Xefi started the presentation straight away, taking the group to a large basin where the Behau community collects and stores rainwater.

Timor-Leste is still battling the effects of the 2015 El Nino – rainfall is unreliable and the wet season is shorter, making it harder and harder for communities to grow enough food. FAO recently made available emergency funding for work that will help fight the drought and help communities use their scant resources effectively – work like the activities RAEBIA is doing with the Behau community.

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From the water storage unit, we climbed through the hills to see other areas of the site, where the community is implementing other activities.

The presentation was entirely in Tetun (of course), so there were big chunks I couldn’t understand – but the gist I got was that our resource centre, which was funded and build by our parent organisation, USC Canada, provides a really broad range of opportunities for the community to conserve the small amount of fertile land they can find on this impossibly steep, arid mountain.

They cultivate seedlings in purpose-built beds, make compost to enrich the soil and retain its moisture, plant new trees on what were previously barestripped brown hills (see how skinny and young the trees are in the photo above), store rainwater, collect and store quality seeds for next year’s planting, and build terraces, which are the red ridges you see carved into the mountain – which would likely otherwise be too sheer a slop to grow anything on.

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The most vital thing RAEBIA does for sustainability in this area is close, respectful work with the community – it’s the community who designs and leads the conservation activities (RAEBIA provides technical support and funding), and it’s often communities who approach RAEBIA to invite us in to work, not the other way around. None of the technical projects would be able to work without investment and leadership from the community.

After lunch in the courtyard, we continued the tour – looping a wide circle through the young forest around the centre.

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It’s the end of the wet season now, so the land is green and fresh. In a couple of months, this will all be dry – but with the Behau community’s work, it’ll grow again next season.

We left when the sun was still high in the sky and glittering off the ocean at the base of the mountains. On the way back to Dili, xefi stopped the car and got out to take a photo of the hills – telling me the last time he was here, there was nothing there. No trees, no life – dead and brown and dry.

Now, the ai bubur forest – eucalyptus; a surprising piece of home for this Australian – is thriving. And I wonder what the mountain will look like next time xefi visits.

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