Subject: Aid workers race against time to get seeds to E Timorese farmers

Aid workers race against time to get seeds to East Timorese farmers

AILEU, East Timor, Nov 18 (AFP) - Smiling East Timorese farmers carried off bags of donated seeds and tools here Thursday in a project aimed at preventing dependence on food handouts in this ravaged territory.

"If we miss this season, these guys have to rely on food aid for another year. That's why it's vital at the moment. That's why we're channelling all our energy at the moment into the seeds," Jim Wackett, spokesman for the World Vision aid agency, told AFP.

Since Monday, World Vision has been travelling northwestern East Timor to hand out thousands of sacks each filled with a five-kilogram (11 pound) bag of high yield corn seed and up to seven kinds of vegetable seeds.

Many farmers also get a hoe blade, a wooden handle and a crow bar to help them dig farmland, Wackett said.

When the distribution ends on Friday the agency expected to have given out 145,000 sacks. The aim is to allow farmers to plant the seed before the rainy season, which has just begun, strikes in earnest.

"It's held off longer than it should have so it's given us that extra window to get stuff out," Wackett said.

Estralino Martins, a local member of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) said it was already late for planting corn, but not for the vegetables like tomatoes.

"It's not too late," one farmer, Jose Mariano, said before setting out on a four hour walk to his village.

The house where he and four other family members lived was burned down during the September rampage by militias backed by Indonesian security forces after East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.

"This will help to work the fields," Maliano said after recieving his sack.

Al Dwyer, World Vision's relief director for Indonesia and East Timor, said the agency had provided vegetable seeds that can be planted at any time.

"Corn is a touchy one... it all depends on the rain. The end of December, we're too late," he said.

The corn seed, which looks like uncooked pink popcorn, has been chemically treated against fungus. It grows to the top of a man's head in three weeks, Dwyer said.

World Vision distributes the seed, which were provided by the the UN's World Food Program and the US Office of Disaster Assistance, Wackett said.

To ensure hungry people don't eat the seed, World Vision expects to follow the seed handouts with donations of more rice.

"Aileu is not too bad. There's a lot of food," after donations of rice by World Vision and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Wackett said.

Xanana Gusmao, leader of the CNRT and the Falintil guerrillas, and expected to become independent East Timor's first leader, has set up his office in this mountain town where smiling guerrillas armed with rifles and grenades man road blocks and wander the streets.

World Vision trucked hundreds of the seed packs to the edge of town where the CNRT has a local office beside a field.

"How many are there?" a CNRT member asked as villagers unloaded the small sacks and carried them into a corrugated iron shack reinforced with bamboo.

In front of the hut about 30 farmers gave their names to Martins, who entered them on a list at a table next to a burned out building.

After a prayer led by Domningos da Costa Mota, the CNRT's local vice secretary, the names were called from the list. One by one, the farmers signed their names or left a red thumbprint on the list then collected their sacks and headed home.

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