Timor-Leste’s budding Green Schools


September 2016

Dili, Timor-Leste

SESIM carried out the first workshop of the UNESCO Green Schools pilot program in Timor-Leste with great success last week. It’s a small program, with only 5 schools selected among 4 districts.  The support from UNESCO Jakarta is limited in funds but broad in scope; schools are free to carry out whatever activities they think are most relevant to environmental preservation and sustainable agriculture.  The program is running in most  other nations of Southeast Asia, with different schools choosing different projects.

We chose 5 schools, and together with the school director chose two teachers to coordinate the program in each school.  In the end, each Green School chose a school garden as their primary activity.  This was great news, because the Ministry of Education has already begun work to incorporate a school garden in each primary school.  Thus, we focused the bulk of the content of this three-day workshop on planting and growing things.

The ultra-formal opening is an unavoidable reality here in Timor-Leste. Even though it was just a three-day workshop with 13 participants, we got the director of the Ministry of Education’s school garden department, the head of the UNESCO Timor-Leste Antenna Office, the Director General for Basic Education, and the host school director all to speak for a few minutes and give their blessings to the program.

When it comes to growing things, I am ever impressed with the average teacher’s depth of knowledge here in Timor-Leste. This workshop was no exception.  I guess it’s logical: subsistence agriculture is still the prevailing occupation for the majority of Timorese families, and even people with city jobs still maintain close enough contact with their farmer relatives to know what is coming ripe at any given time, and how the crops are doing.

We lined up local organizations to train the teachers the first two days, and used the third to help them consolidate plans for their gardens and present them to each other.  We found two of the teachers we’d chosen had extensive backgrounds in horticulture, including grafting trees and managing nurseries.

Mestra Sandra, one of SESIM’s top biology trainers, is coordinating this project. The natural leader of the group of 10 teachers turned out to be Mestre Ze.  Several years back he scored an extensive training in Colorado (of all places) where he learned many of his agriculture techniques as well as how to can fruits and vegetables.  He didn’t content himself with observing these foreign methods; he came back and tried it all, it seems, on his small farm in the hills of Ermera municipality.  He says he’s got several orchards now, managed by his sons and daughters, who help him plant more trees and vegetables each year.

The Green School coordination team with the invincible Mestre Ze down in front.  Mestra Sandra is third from right.

Mestre Ze helped the other teachers form a reasonable plan for their students and the space they had available.  Mestra Sandra and I were quite pleased with the ideas that came out:

  • Put the students in charge and support them with whatever they want to.
  • Plant separate the plots for each grade to encourage comparison and even healthy competition.
  • Put the community around the school in charge of security for the garden, against roving animals and renegade kids.
  • Use all possible space, even piling soil on top of concrete when necessary.
  • Use modern methods, including tractors and steel fencing, whenever it is possible within their tiny budgets.

Green schools in the majority world, such as here in Timor-Leste, have quite different priorities than those in rich nations like my native U.S.A.  The goals are closer to the crux of life:  produce more, preserve the limited soil that feeds their families, increase the diversity of fruits and vegetables and the diversity of agriculture methods.  They may engage with cleaning up litter, but the ‘reduce’ part of the three R’s is rarely a priority.  The reality is that a great many Timorese, despite hard work and their best strategies, have not been able to consume enough from their environment to attain an acceptable standard of living. To achieve healthy, sustainable communities that can access global information and modest technology, they, along with millions of others, will need to consume a little more.

I, on the flipside, have mostly lived in the nation with the world’s biggest consumers, and with little effort, taken much more than my share.  It has been a privilege to learn from my Timorese colleagues about how to live happily with less.  I hope these green schools can teach me even more.


Here are some photos from the workshop:


2 thoughts on “Timor-Leste’s budding Green Schools”

  1. the work you are all doing is totally inspirational – not only should it be used to teach children in Timor but also those in very privileged countries in the First World who know nothing or almost nothing of these simple, ecological and sustainable practices. High Five to all involved – I admire hugely what you are doing!


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