Tens of thousands of bamboo saplings are ready to be planted but rely on increasingly unreliable rains.

by Alex Ray

At Timor-Leste’s largest bamboo nursery and processing plant near Dili, thousands of bagged saplings are lined up ready to be planted as soon as monsoon rains arrive. But this year, the wet season is worryingly late.

“Our bamboo industry has a promising future – but we must have reliable water supplies,” says Sabino Rua, Director of the state-owned Bamboo Institute of Timor-Leste (BITL).

The emerald green saplings are grown at BITL’s Tibar nursery, 35 minutes’ drive west of the capital, before being sold to farmers across Timor Leste.

Upgrade machines have improved the processing capacity of BITL and regional processing centres.


However, Timor’s fledgling bamboo industry is being held back by unreliable water supply.

A few years ago, the industry relied on wild harvesting. Now, there are more than 600 hectares of small-scale plantations usually managed by over 400 farmers in hundreds of locations.

They help to meet strong local demand for construction and furniture timber and firewood – along with increasing timber exports. Rua says BITL recently received its largest-ever export order for 150,000 strips from a company in California but had to decline.

“If we tried to meet the order we would jeopardise the sustainability of the crop, so we declined,” says Rua, punching out the figures on a bamboo-encased calculator. He adds that the CEO of the US building materials company plans to visit Timor Leste to explore possibilities through the Bamboo Institute.

Expansion of the bamboo industry has created jobs for over 500 people.


Rua says BITL is developing the “entire value chain” of bamboo production with a “zero-waste approach” and has been boosted by the recently completed Dili-Ainaro Road Development Corridor (DARDC) project. 

Funded by Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the DARDC project was implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with Ministry of State Administration, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion (MSSI), municipal authorities and local communities.

The project aims to improve the natural disaster resilience and economic capacity of over 26,000 people living in the corridor. The project’s primary focus is on water access and management, including irrigation, tank storage, flood mitigation and reforestation initiatives.

BITL benefitted from DARDC primarily through support for a national strategy for bamboo, which guides the development and promotion of the industry, with a focus on environmental sustainability. The project also supplied BITL with planing and carbonizing machines.

The project supplied cross-cutting and stripping machines to five rural collection centres. The relatively simple machines separate bamboo poles into various parts for use in different supply chains, thereby processing higher volumes and adding value at the local level.

Small producers also benefited from the DARDC project. Alongside BITL’s operations the project have enabled a dozen community bamboo nurseries to plant a combined 35,000 bamboo saplings for 2020.

Improved strawberry farming has helped the Mendonca family create more reliable monthly income.


Farmer Filipe Mendonça is part of an agricultural cooperative in the central mountain town of Maubisse. Mendonça says the community previously struggled to sustain itself but, with a US$1,500 grant he was able to pipe permanent water from a local spring.

“From the strawberries alone, my family now makes over $120 per month selling locally,” Mendonça says. Despite these improvements, Mendonça is also waiting for the rains “I would like to plant more but we need the wet season to start,” he says. “Timor does not have a well-established irrigation network, so we are still heavily reliant on the seasons.”
BITL’s zero-waste approach has created opportunities for Timorese to make and sell products ranging from furniture and household items to handicrafts and cooking fuel.

“I used to be a dental nurse, but I had an artistic side, and that’s what I prefer to work with,” says Paulo Amaral, a 42-year-old craftsman at BITL. Originally from Viqueque district, Amaral has been working at BITL for three months and is one of over 500 people working in the Timorese bamboo industry

Saturnino dos Santos, BITL’s Chief of Research and Community Services says Bamboo has both environmental and economic benefits. “It can be planted in patches of difficult terrain along waterways. So it does not take up productive land, but it ensures soil stability in vulnerable areas,” dos Santos says.

Waste from BITL is transformed into valuable cooking fuel and other products.


“We also make fuel briquettes from bamboo sawdust. The bamboo gets so dry that it burns cleaner than gas. We sell more than one tonne of briquettes per month to restaurants and the rest we use to power machinery here instead of electricity.”

Timor’s growing population, underdeveloped industries and extreme climate mean economic development needs to improve livelihoods while being environmentally sustainable and commercially competitive.

According to the Green Climate Fund, which has allocated $22.4 million for further climate-resilience projects in Timor, infrastructure damage and loss of income from extreme weather costs the country US$250 million each year.

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