Food sufficiency, environment conservation, local autonomy, social equity—these are urgent, bedrock concerns today. These challenges are addressed by governments, development agencies, multilateral organizations, and other institutions, but we have also seen that the most meaningful, impactful actions often come from the ground, from local communities and the people themselves.
An inspiring example is the story of fifty-one-year-old Eugenio Lemos of Timor-Leste. Lemos lived through the turbulent years of his country’s struggle for independence, that saw the Indonesian invasion and the bitter civil war that marked the country’s emergence as a fully independent nation in 2002. Such difficult beginnings devastated the economy, leaving 40% of the country’s mostly rural population living below the poverty line. For Lemos, born to a family of farmers, it was a tragic time as well. He lost his father and siblings during the war and had to help his mother in farm work at an early age. It would be his life.
He studied agriculture in a local university and took up such activities as starting a group to promote organic farming. In 1999, an Australian permaculture trainer, who was in Timor-Leste to train farmers in sustainable agriculture, introduced Lemos to permaculture, a holistic system for creating and managing sustainable agrosystems. It was not simply about transferring technologies but the cultivation of an ethos of responsible relations to nature and people, expressed in the words “earth care, people care, and fair share.” Lemos saw that many elements of this system were already present in traditional Timorese culture and he resolved that this was something he would devote himself to promoting among his people.
In 2001, Lemos established Permakultura Timor-Lorosa’e (Permatil). It has three main programs. A Youth Training Program that organizes three-day camps for youth seventeen years old or older, involving learning-and-fun activities in water and natural resource management, farming, aquaculture, and agroforestry. (Another camp for kids twelve to sixteen was later added, with simpler activities like gardening and preparing organic food.)
A School Garden Program implemented in public primary schools in which students tend vegetable gardens and learn composting, natural pest control, seed selection, and other skills. There is also a Water and Natural Resource Management Program that promotes “rainwater harvesting” by building ponds, swales, and terraces that store water, recharge aquifers, and regenerate springs.
Since 2008, the youth camp has trained more than 5,000 youth across the country. The School Garden Program has been established in more than 250 schools and, since 2015, has been integrated in the national public school curriculum. Permatil’s Water and Natural Resource Management Program has been introduced in all thirteen administrative districts of Timor-Leste. More than 1,000 water collection ponds have been built and 300 springs revived, benefitting over 400,000 residents or almost a third of the country’s population.
Charismatic, Lemos works with people from all walks of life—they are drawn by his open, humble, down-to-earth manner. Very much in character, he is an activist, a song writer and a singer who uses his songs as a medium to communicate the social issues he cares about. More than just about methods and techniques, Lemos promotes a whole way of looking at nature and people, particularly among the young. Taking time off for a scholarship in 2008-2010, Lemos earned a master’s degree in community development in Australia. What defines him today is that he is proud and respectful of his culture, grounded in local realities, and draws deeply from traditional knowledge what he finds essential to living. He insists, for instance, that what is needed is not simply “food security” or access to food (often commercial and imported) but “food sovereignty,” the country’s capacity to produce its own food, placing the premium on what is local, natural, and nutritious. Still, Lemos is mindful that what he is doing has lessons beyond Timor-Leste. He says, “My message to people—especially leaders of every country—is, think wisely. Don’t think only of how to create benefits for business without thinking about the impact on the environment. As world citizens, everything we do has an impact on others. We have one atmosphere, one water, one air.”
In electing Eugenio Lemos to receive the 2023 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his indomitable spirit in uplifting the lives of local communities, his vision and passion in integrating local and indigenous cultures in his advocacy for the care of the environment and the well-being of people; and for being truly a man of and for his people, and thus for the world as well.