Timor Leste schools lead the world with Permaculture in the Curriculum

Timor Leste has made the teaching of permaculture a compulsory subject in the primary school curriculum. Under the curriculum endorsed by the Timorese government in 2015, all primary schools are required to teach permaculture to students in Grades 3 to 6.

The inclusion of Permaculture is the brainchild of Ego Lemos, founder and director of the not-for-profit organisation Permatil (Permaculture Timor Leste) and co-author of The Tropical Permaculture Guidebook.

Ego Lemos and Lachlan McKenzie launch the new edition of Permatil's Tropical Permaculture Guidebook at the Timor Leste Embassy, Canberra, 18 April 2018.

Ego worked with the Education Department in the writing of the Arts and Culture section of Timor’s curriculum. As well as music, performance and art he incorporated permaculture (creative garden designing) and cuisine (Timorese culture) into the curriculum. Ego argued permaculture's immediate relevance and value as practice-based skills, with the classes run outdoors and food gardens established in the school.

Ego convinced the Education Department that these were important, life-long skills, that the program would produce food for school lunches, be an entry point for parents to participate in school life and an opportunity for spreading skills to the wider community to improve nutrition and food production in home gardens.

Through the hands-on program, children are taught a range of permaculture techniques including:

  • growing vegetables
  • designing a garden
  • techniques for composting
  • integrated pest management
  • living fences
  • seed collection and storage
  • tree nursery
  • ...and lots more.

In Ego’s words, school gardens are also used for ‘active learning in a living book or laboratory’ to convey skills and knowledge. It is important to bring the learning experience outside and make it practical. It can link to other aspects of the curriculum: science, maths, literacy, social science, natural science, problem solving and adapting to climate change.

Despite its inclusion in the curriculum, the government has not provided funding for the program. This is not to dismiss the program. It's the reality of widespread lack of funding for schools in Timor Leste and includes greater issues like low pay or no pay for teachers and poorly resourced schools. Some may have few or no reading books and some are even without drinking water or toilets.

Permatil responded to the funding gap by undertaking to implement and support the curriculum program. It began with two pilot schools in late 2015. The Permatil volunteer staff worked to form and train parent committees to build and care for the garden and work alongside teachers. They found donors to fund the implementation and, school-by-school, they had success. Today, just three years later, it has expanded to around the 178 schools currently in the program.

Funding has mostly come from small NGO’s, including from Australian Timor Leste friendship groups. This network of groups has been operating since 2002 linking communities in Australia with a partner community in Timor Leste. Groups fund the program in schools in their partner communities. The Friends of Manatuto, based in the City of Kingston in Melbourne see it as ‘an ideal project – it is Timorese driven and Timorese run and seeks to address the immediate basic needs of food security and nutrition.

Ego was introduced to permaculture soon after the country obtained its independence in 1999 by Australian permie, Steve Cran, who became a close friend and mentor. Since then Ego has tried a number of methods to reach communities and encourage them to take up permaculture practices. He has travelled widely in the country directly teaching techniques to subsistence farmers, establishing school permaculture gardens and running youth permaculture camps. He believes that working with schools is the most effective strategy to impact practices in the broader community and increase production of home gardens. The program is carefully planned through a series of stages:

  • establishing a community parents’ committee specifically for the program
  • running workshops which are open to the whole community
  • training volunteer community members to assist with running the program locally with the support of trained Permatil staff
  • requiring students to bring materials from home for the gardens – e.g. a bag of goat manure, sticks for fencing
  • encouraging students to talk to their families about what they learn, and establish gardens around their houses — some schools even give homework requiring this and the teacher will go to each student’s house to assess their compost and work
  • providing support for local community groups and associations to establish gardens
  • encouraging attendees of youth camps to become involved in school gardens.

Timor has 1108 primary schools, so there’s still a long way to go to establish gardens in all of them and still lots of funding to be found.

An evaluation of the permaculture in school program will be undertaken in June/July this year to assess the impact the program is having in the schools as well as broader issues such as student engagement with school, household food security and health, etc.

Lessons learned from successes and difficulties so far will be used to improve the program’s effectiveness and assess if it is achieving its goals. The results will be used to attract funding to implement the program in the remaining 926 primary schools across Timor.

The evaluation is being funded by donations from a range of groups including the friends groups, Permafund and a wonderful collective donation made by the attendees at the APC14 in Canberra in April.

If you would like to help make this happen, you can make a tax deductible donation through Permaculture Australia’s Permafund via this link (put ‘Permatil school gardens’ in the description for direct deposits).

Written by Robyn Erwin
Evaluation Team Leader & Chair of Friends of Manatuto

A woman at Australasian Permaculture Convergence 14 in Canberra in April 2018 drops a donation into the hat passed around to collect funds for Permatil.

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