Timor-Leste’s School Garden initiative

On November 7 and 8, Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Education held a vast conference at Dili’s central conference facility with a series of talks and breakout sessions all focused on school gardens.  Several hundred school directors and teachers were in attendance, and the prime minister was slated to open the event.  He had a scheduling conflict arise, but the Minister of Education stepped in to take his place.  Outside the main meeting hall were creative garden displays from several of the schools that have already got school gardens up and running.

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Giant billboards announcing the conference gave it an air of official finality: Here come school gardens.

School gardens are now written into both teacher guides and student readers produced by the Ministry of Education to assist implementation of the new national primary education curriculum. A recent change to the official structure within the Ministry clearly places school gardens as an integral program under the Directorate for Social Action. While SESIM has no direct involvement in school gardens, I attended the conference with a keen eye to learn what the teachers and administrators had to say about this new initiative by the Ministry.  SESIM’s revised curriculum for junior high level science has several pratika that could best be carried out in a garden, and in general SESIM supports schools teaching and learning about effective agriculture, as one of the areas of science most closely linked to the daily lives of students and their families.

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The director of the Ministry of Education’s Social Action directorate, Mr. Belchior M.A.B. Guerra, giving a pep talk to the breakout groups.

Behind this initiative is Ego Lemos, who has appeared in an earlier blog as author of a song imploring care and attention for the plants and trees that hold down valuable topsoil. Enormously popular as a local folk/rock singer and songwriter, Lemos is also founder and executive director of Permatil, Timor-Leste’s permaculture organization which, with the help of Australian permaculture friends, has published an astonishingly comprehensive manual on sustainable agriculture in the tropics.  It can be found online here.

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Ego Lemos, left, with Venancio Carvalho, an environmental education expert also working on Timor-Leste’s curriculum.

Lemos has been working for three years with the team creating the Art and Culture content for the new primary school curriculum.  He’s especially well-suited for the job, because he’s been able to insert traditional music, dance, and drama as well as elements of agriculture as a critical aspect of local culture.  Through the new curriculum, the school garden has become a necessary part of the teaching and learning resources for each school.

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Lemos with students and teachers at a brilliant display by one of the schools with a garden already up and running.

Lemos now works as adviser to the Ministry’s new department of school gardens, under the directorate of Social Action, which also oversees the highly controversial and corruption-prone school lunch program.  He sees these two issues going together hand in glove: when the school garden works well, the school lunch program will benefit from it.

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The few urban schools in Timor can always plant their gardens in pots, bamboo shafts and reclaimed bottles.

But he also points out the many other ways a school garden can be put to use to increase the quality of education.  Mathematics and science lessons can be based on the garden.  Health lessons can analyze the nutritional results and possibilities of the garden.  Social science lessons can look at the history and current reality of food production in Timor-Leste.  And even literacy can use the garden and local agriculture as a subject for writing or reading.  Many of these ideas are already solidified in the newly reformed curriculum.

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A focus group discusses the many ways a school garden can fit into the school’s curriculum.

Listening to various teachers and school directors, I found that highly energetic and motivated teachers are already developing their school gardens, and using them to great effect.  Others were more skeptical, asking where the time and resources will come from.  But the general message across the two days was basically that school gardens are an idea whose time has come, and despite the challenges, each school needs to set one up and get a group of students to take care of it.  By the end of the two days, I got the sense that the enthusiasts had won over the skeptics, that the majority were leaving more informed, inspired and determined to make school gardens happen at their schools.

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Another display from a successful garden. On the left you see trees in a bag, a common way to transplant here. On the far right are two sugar cane stems, which can be split into as many new plants as there are sections in the stem. This is sure to be a popular crop.

80% of Timorese depend on subsistence farming.  Every person in Timor knows how to plant and grow things, but 50% of Timorese kids are malnourished.  Clearly education is in order, and what better way to teach than in the context of production.  The simple notion that a full belly does not at all ensure a full set of necessary nutrients is one that can easily be passed on to students in the process of planning and producing their own food.  And students passing on this knowledge to their families is a logical and effortless part of this scheme.

In the gardens that are part of our Green School pilot I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how keen junior high students are to work in the dirt. It may be due to the great potential benefits: food, money, fame in the community, but it also could be that working together with colleagues toward a constructive shared goal is a good time in any situation. At any rate, working on a garden at school raises the awareness that gardens are a key part of a family’s nutrition, and teaches that a little effort in the dirt results in more good food at meal time.

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