Ramon Magsaysay awardee fights for food sovereignty

Daphne Galvez - The Philippine Star
Ramon Magsaysay awardee fights for food sovereignty
Eugenio Lemos Timor-Leste
STAR / File

MANILA, Philippines — Eugenio Lemos was a child when Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, was besieged by war when the Indonesian military invaded. This forced his family to flee to the mountains to ensure their safety.

For over four years, they tried to survive without any support from the government and relied on the forest for their daily sustenance.

His father and youngest sister died due to starvation. After they came out of hiding, his brother died, unable to adjust to the food.

Only Lemos and his mother survived.

This experience, he said, is what ultimately led him to fight for the preservation of the environment and bat for sustainable food and local autonomy.

Lemos said he does not want other people to experience what he went through.

“My childhood experience in the forest is if we do not have knowledge of tilling our food, I might not also be here today. When we protect our native forest, we are protecting the biodiversity of nature and that can make us resilient,” he said in a press conference.

“My experience during the civil war is no good experience at all. I hope it’s not going to repeat again in any country because I witnessed myself how people were dying of hunger, they lost their family and the kids were malnourished,” he added.

Lemos, a Timorese musician and environmental activist promoting organic farming in Timor-Leste, is one of the 2023 Ramon Magsaysay Award honorees.

He is recognized for his work in helping achieve food sovereignty and instilling the value of safeguarding the environment and social equality.

Lemos learned of permaculture in 1999 from an Australian permaculture trainer who visited his country at the time to teach farmers sustainable agriculture.

Since then, he has engaged in initiatives including launching a group to organize youth training camps on organic gardening and ensuring water supply through rainwater harvesting and building ponds and terraces that store water and regenerate springs.

With this, over 1,000 water collection ponds have been built and 300 springs have been revived since then, benefiting over 400,000 Timoreses – almost a third of Timor-Leste’s population.

For Lemos, it is important to harness and strengthen indigenous traditional knowledge in agriculture and avoid dependence on modern technology which, he said, contributes to climate change and alienates people who cannot cope with it.

“Even when we introduced technology and machinery, we never solved food insecurity in the world and now we are affected by climate change. I think all the technology we produced is not going to help,” he said.

What will help, he said, is going back and relearning traditional knowledge and the indigenous culture and knowing how people survived in the past.

While Lemos admitted that there is resistance from some people who think that permaculture is “backward,” he promotes it since it bats for a “sustainable aspect of a traditional culture in agriculture.”

“It’s going to strengthen the knowledge of the people and make people more resilient rather than become marginalized to this modern technology,” he said.

One of his initiatives in promoting permaculture and food sovereignty is having it inculcated as part of the national curriculum in Timor-Leste’s educational system. This is also part of a strategy to encourage young people to take up agriculture.

One of the objectives, he said, is to establish a laboratory in every school where science will be taught, “shifting passive learning inside the classroom to active learning outside the school.”

This, he said, would teach the youth a “live-for-living book rather than a written book that may be viewed in different languages in different places and cultures.”

School gardening will also be promoted in schools to teach students how to grow and look after plants and they can bring that knowledge to their homes and their families.

Lemos believes that to achieve food sovereignty, every family should have a garden, no matter how big or small, so that they can grow their own food.

The use of music

Lemos also uses his songs as a medium to further promote his advocacy on food sovereignty and environmental protection and other social issues that he cares about.

With his tragic childhood experience, it was through music that he and his mother survived, Lemos said.

He said his mother played the harmonica, which entertained them during dark times.

“Me and my mom still survived until today because we got through that using music,” he noted.

One of the songs he wrote, he said, was about farmers, which is now being sung every day in schools.

He hopes to release another song that he wrote about fixing the Earth, which will be in English.

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