Growth and Isolation

— Permaculture in the village of Atekru, Timor-Leste, by Emma Gleason and Vincent Paunovic…


Our world is naturally symbiotic, with no part existing independently of another. To reject that notion is to reject nature itself. The principles of permaculture – to care for the earth, its people and to live sustainably within it – have added gravity in the small, developing island nation of Timor-Leste.


Lying to the north of Australia, we’d been on the mainland in Dili (the capital) a couple of weeks when we heard about the permaculture initiative on Atauro Island. This information came to us by word of mouth, like most things in Timor.


With stifling humidity and arid soil, harsh sun and torrential downpours, Timor-Leste is a country of extremes. Wealth inequality is extreme, with over half of the country live in poverty, as is the balance of age – 60% of the population is under 25.


Atauro sits 25 km north of Dili and the mainland. The permaculture organisation NaTerra can be found in the village of Atekru on the northern side of the island. We hiked across its expanse one morning, from Beloi on its southern coast to Adara village in the north – crossing shattered roads and primeval mountain valleys, past the volcano rock spat out long ago. Stone fences whisper of the islands past – a time when villagers lived in the interior, farming on the fertile, protected land.


Leaving Adara for Atekru we miscalculated, underestimated – departing at high tide rather than low – and it took us three hours to make our way across the large sharp rocks that soldier the coastline. At low tide it’s a forty-five minute walk and far easier.


On an island like Atauro, nature must be worked with rather than around. Imports are few and far between, and there are only a handful of provisions stores on the whole island. Infrastructure is basically non-existent, and the isolation is extreme – magnified by its close distance to the capital. The principles (and effects) of permaculture could not be more relevant here.


The concept of permaculture is that of an holistic agricultural approach which, through design, sensitivity and harnessing natural ecosystems, is self-sufficient and sustainable – minimising environmental impact and fostering beneficial relationships (for both nature and people). Renewable resources are used carefully, respected and valued, waste is minimised and eliminated if possible. In every area, reducing environmental impact is vital.


For two months each year, the villages on Atauro Island’s northern coast are inaccessible by boat due to weather and ocean conditions. Fernando, who was running NaTerra when we visited, explained how vulnerable Atekru village could be. “People don’t have electricity, they don’t have access to water. They don’t have access by car or motorbike. Even with boats, there’s two months of the year that you can’t reach [Atekru] by boat. So if you get a serious disease, as has happened before, you just die here. There is no other way.”


The invasion of Timor-Leste by Indonesia in 1975 saw the people of Atauro Island moved down from their homes in the fertile interior to the coastal land where they were easier to monitor. This arid land is a far cry from the lush heart of the island; little grows, water is scarce, and fishing is one of the few options. A great deal was lost during the Indonesian occupation: homes, skills and knowledge. Fernando explained further, “They lost a lot of agriculture diversity during colonization [by Portugal in the 16th century] and the Indonesian occupation. Lost crops, lost exchange with other places because of isolation. Under occupation they also lost the concept of storing seeds, because they couldn’t organize. They were moving from place to place, told to get out of their homes.”


The NaTerra initiative began on the mainland of Timor-Leste in the coastal town of Bacau. After establishing the project there, Fernando and the other ten founders began looking for their next step. “After seeing that project running on its own, we decided it was time to move to the next project. Something harder, something more remote, where help is even more needed. So we decided to go to Atauro.”


One of the main reasons, he explained, is the scale of the small island. “We’re talking about an island with less than 10,000 people – with eleven schools and seven women’s groups – who it’s possible to reach. That’s why we’re working with all these groups, because you can design a project on the island’s scale.”


Fernando and Rosa, another founder, circumnavigated the island of Atauro on foot, searching for the ideal land and community. “We walked six days around the whole island, getting to know the reality and seeing the distances, and the different villages and climates You need to choose a place to establish, even though you’re working with the whole island. The north side is more fertile and more green but much more isolated.”


Atauro has countless microclimates, from the arid scrub and gum trees of the southern coast, to the lush rainforest of the volcanic interior. The north side is different again – green, fertile and tropical. It is here that NaTerra’s initiative on Atauro was founded, in the small village of Atekru.


We visited at the tail end of 2017. Only nine months in (although securing funding and approval had taken years beforehand), there were already large expanses of neatly planted fields, home to sister-crops like corn, beans and pumpkin. Buildings were being erected in traditional Timorese style using natural materials; a traditional thatched roof was going up on a building, and the foundations for another – a schoolroom – were being laid out. There were around three dozen Timorese working on the land when we visited, and all came from local villages. They take back with them not only crops that they’ve harvested, but knowledge to share with and improve their own communities. This ‘bleed out’ of information is at the heart of NaTerra’s approach to improving agricultural practices and sustainability there.


The island receives little rain, so water management is vital, and is integral to the permaculture ideology. Waste water is filtered through a natural system of coral, sand and water-cleaning plants. All toilets in NaTerra are composting. Each family is soon to receive their own rainwater tank from another NGO and, most importantly, the villagers will be taught how to install and maintain these.


Fernando also told us of moringa, a crop they grow. Touted as a superfood, it has the potential to be of vital dietary importance to isolated, compromised communities like Atekru. “The leaves of moringa provide complete nutrition – protein, all the vitamins – and it’s one of the only plants to have all seven amino acids that the human needs. Another amazing thing is it’s one of the most resilient plants on earth – it can grow without water for six months.” Not only does it provide the community with supplementary nutrition, it can also be used for water purification. At NaTerra they dry and powder moringa when the plant is at its most nutrient rich, so its benefits are available all year round. Originally from India, it grows well in tropical, subtropical and semi-arid areas so is ideal for the micro-climates of Timor-Leste.


Permaculture in Timor is not just limited to NGOs like NaTerra and Atauro’s eco-resorts, it is part of the country’s education curriculum – the first in the world to do so. Fernando explained how this came to pass. “Ego Lemos is the pioneer of permaculture here. He has been following an amazing path and knows very much which way to go to bring this concept as part of the system. At a certain point he entered the Ministry of Education and started working for them, and working on the national curriculum – that’s when he introduced permaculture as part of it. The people where very happy with it, it’s a new concept.”


Bacau is still home to NaTerra’s seed bank, a resource with the goal of fostering and facilitating agricultural diversity and accessibility. As for their initiative in Atekru on Atauro island, they have committed to a twenty-five year agreement with the family they lease the land from. Fernando and the others don’t believe in short stints or dabbling. “The idea is for this to be a training centre and that needs to be a long term commitment. I don’t believe in one year or even three year projects. If you’re in development, [your projects] should be ten years or more.”


Reclaiming a collective history, permaculture heralds a return to traditional practices. Agriculture is ingrained in Timorese traditional culture (the majority of the population still live rurally) so through permaculture this can be developed and maintained, rather than rely on importing goods. Fernando stresses the importance of permaculture in creating equality. “Sustainable development brings more equality, more opportunity to everyone.” The integration of permaculture practices in the wider community has the power to foster sustainability, environmental sensitivity, nutritional security and (most importantly) a more tangible independence for the people of this small, young country.









Read more from Emma and Vincent at

Words: Emma Gleason
Interview: Vincent Paunovic and Emma Gleason
Photos: Vincent Paunovic and Emma Gleason