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Timor's land law: The 'monster' in the room?
Timor's land law: The 'monster' in the room?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Op-Ed / Asia

Timor's land law: The 'monster' in the room?

Originally published in The Interpreter

Eight years after independence, there is still no way to legally buy, sell, or prove undisputed ownership of land in Timor-Leste. When Timor-Leste's Vice Prime Minister Mario Carrascalão quit last week, his resignation letter noted that land ownership had been 'transformed into a monster' by hidden vested interests.

The need for a 'land law' has been talked about for so long that expectations are high after the Government approved a law on titling in March, now awaiting parliamentary approval. Few have read the complex law, which would establish the first ownership rights in a country that has inherited overlapping titles from Portuguese and Indonesian administrations. There's little data on how much of the country's land is subject to overlapping claims — many of the country's land records were destroyed in the violence surrounding the 1999 referendum.

A greater difficulty than reconciling these claims may be accommodating formal titling with the reality that the vast majority of the country's land remains under customary ownership, meaning communities turn to traditional leaders for guidance on usage and ownership.

In many areas, these long-standing customary rights are stronger than any formal title. In Dili, members of the former vice-prime minister's own influential family recently took a local leader to court for distributing land not far from the airport to residents in need of housing. He says it's 'empty land', but the Carrascalãos claim ownership based on an old Portuguese title.

In the country's second city, Baucau, state-owned land around an Indonesian-built gymnasium is contested by at least two communities: one believes it has rights to sell the land, while elders from another want to distribute it for free.

Evictions and resettlement will remain a challenge for the Timorese state. Efforts to enforce a 2003 law on state ownership of property have often failed. Compensation has been ad hoc and set bad precedents. After thousands of families whose homes were destroyed in the 2006 crisis were paid $4500, it is now difficult to resettle anyone for less. A constitutional right to housing exists, but there is no policy or funds to address this obligation. Not one displaced person re-settled after the most recent crisis was provided with government housing.

In rural areas, the issues are different. To boost agricultural productivity, pre-UN administrations resettled people near the border town of Maliana. This first brought settlers from neighbouring villages and later Balinese transmigrants, who fled in 1999. Since independence, tension over this land has led to violence between two villages (some say it was deadly, others say just an exchange of blows). After repeated mediation failed, the dispute was sent to court, joining the hundreds of 'pending' land disputes that are either caught in the overall judicial logjam or simply awaiting a clearer legislative basis to make a ruling.

As the ICG argued in its recent report, such complexities are not an excuse for more delay, but they should be a warning that something more than just a new titling regime is needed to address Timor-Leste's land problems.

Legally enforceable property rights will protect property transactions, promote economic development, and help consolidate rule of law. Implementing this will require a comprehensive government response, including a better legislative process that leaves behind a clear understanding with the public about the law's content and impact, especially who stands to win and lose from its passage.

Consistent policies for compensating those adversely affected and how to house those evicted are also needed. Mediation needs support, as the courts will be hard pressed to cope with the influx of cases. The social fabric of villages, which has held Timor-Leste together throughout its eight years of weak government, needs to be respected as much as any act of parliament.

Commentary / Asia

Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?

Timor-Leste seems to have passed the test. With last Saturday’s parliamentary poll, it has now held three elections this year without significant violence. This will allow for the withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping mission whose 1,100-strong police component has long seemed out of synch with local realities. Its violent recent past may increasingly look like history, although the poor country that celebrated only the 10th anniversary of the restoration of its independence in May still faces numerous challenges.

Concerns that the formation of a new coalition government might give rise to violence, as occurred following the 2007 elections, now look misplaced as provisional results show only four parties due to take seats in parliament (official results are due next week). A look at the seat results shows that the CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) has increased its share from 18 to 30 seats, and looks likely to form another government with former coalition partner Partido Democrático (eight seats) and maybe Frenti-Mudança (two seats).This is good for stability in the short term, but it also carries risks. A stronger government composed of fewer parties may be able to pursue clearer legislative objectives, but it will put great pressure on FRETILIN as perhaps the only party in opposition. As a young country only ten years on from independence, Timor-Leste’s parliament continues to consider questions of fundamental importance to the country’s future on which there is much debate, such as how to spend the billions in its Petroleum Fund, or how to structure land administration. Chosen from party lists and not constituencies, giving them little incentive to engage with communities, Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians to date have struggled to provide either an effective check on the executive or a constructive partner by initiating their own legislation. CNRT’s dominance will mean less active scrutiny and will further erode its role as an instrument of accountability.

The elections were not violence-free. There were some minor incidents of stone throwing and a report of three houses being burnt in Viqueque district in the last few days. But even in this volatile part of Timor-Leste, it was much less than the hundreds burnt around the 2007 polls. When we visited the district in May and asked why, the answer from the police, local government, chefes de suco, and civil society workers alike was unanimous – the threats from heads of the police and army had worked. Their blunt warnings that troublemakers would be shot were backed up with high-profile joint patrols and those contemplating violence got the message. It was a victory for “conflict prevention” that raised new questions about how the country will be governed in the future.