Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July 2014, 14:54 GMT

Timor-Leste: Regulating land ownership "key to stability"

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 29 September 2011
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Timor-Leste: Regulating land ownership "key to stability", 29 September 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e85b0652.html [accessed 23 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Atoki Madeira says it started with threats and escalated into armed assaults. The 40-year-old Timorese NGO worker alleges the attacks stemmed from a dispute over a property she purchased in the Timorese capital, Dili, a decade ago.

The perpetrators were men from the east who, over several years, settled in and around her property in an attempt to squeeze her out, she says.

Her efforts to seek support from the police and courts have largely come to naught. She has abandoned her property and pitted her hopes on an intervention by the country's president.

"I'm afraid for my life. There are people who want to kill me," Madeira told IRIN.

One of many growing pains for this country are land disputes, which remain a potentially combustible issue in Timor-Leste, say analysts.

Land tenure lies at the core of how the country is defined, says Cillian Nolan, a Dili-based researcher for the International Crisis Group, who wrote a report published last year on the issue.

New land tenure legislation raises difficult questions for the government, he says. "What reparations must it make for the wrongs of [the Portuguese and Indonesian regimes]... and how will it enforce the rule of law?"

Tension over land rights is particularly raw because "food consumption, income and security are largely measured by control of and access to land", notes a 2006 report by USAID on the underlying causes of an army insurrection that year in which dozens were killed and some 150,000 people displaced.

The report by the US government's aid wing identified uncertainty over land rights as one of the most likely triggers of future violence in the half-island nation.

History of upheaval

From 1975 to 1999, Timor-Leste was ruled by the Indonesian army, which frequently confiscated land and forcibly relocated communities to break up resistance networks.

Previously, Portuguese colonists imposed onerous taxes that forced some to sell their property and work as landless share-croppers and wage labourers.

When Timor-Leste achieved independence in 1999, most of the land was occupied without official title deeds.

Land claims have become further complicated in recent years following episodes of violence - including the 2006 army uprising - that forced people to relocate and sometimes squat on vacant properties.

Formally regulating land tenure is essential to reduce rural poverty, improve food security and minimize the likelihood of episodes of mass violence in the future, wrote Daniel Fitpatrick, a professor at New York University's Law School, who has focused on land issues in the Pacific region, in a 2010 report commissioned by the World Bank.

"There is an urgent need for legal certainty relating to ownership of rural land, mechanisms for investors to seek access to rural land, and safeguards relating to food and livelihoods security in rural districts," he said.

Horacio da Silva, an official at the Land Department, says his office would benefit from the passage of a land law that was proposed in 2010 but has yet to be voted on in parliament because, say observers, it is politically sensitive.

The law would grant titles to undisputed land, initiate a specific system for resolving land disputes outside civilian courts, and offer formal recognition of plots claimed by villages as "communal land" - a category of ownership with long roots, but no formal legal basis, in Timor-Leste.

Land titling advances

Making headway is Ita Nia Rai, a project that is on the verge of being able to issue title deeds for about a quarter of the total parcels of land in the country.

Started in 2007, it is funded by USAID and operated by Tetra Tech, a global engineering, construction and management consultancy. Ita Nia Rai has organized cadastral surveys for each property under its purview, establishing ownership of 91 percent of some 47,000 parcels of urban land it reviewed.

A government motion passed in July will pave the way for the property claims established by Ita Nia Rai to be converted into formal land titles.

"Many disputes can be resolved once specific systems are put in place," says Kim Glenn, the project's head.

Ita Nia Rai's system has been effective because it is accessible, interactive and transparent, he says.

"Disputes fester in an environment where the information is not easy to understand or to share with others."

He says his organization would like to extend its processes to rural areas but this expansion would require the government first to legally define what constitutes "community land", a step that would require the passage of the land law proposed in 2010.

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