23 March 2013

Land and Housing Rights in Timor-Leste

ETLJB 23 March 2013 Guest Poster: Pamela Sexton. Over the past month, massive rains have flooded the Aitarak Laran community, a stone's throw from Trocaire's office where I work. The flooding and major damage to many make-shift houses along the canal has been blamed on the slow and misguided work of a company hired by the government last year to build a new bridge in this area. Local members of Rede ba Rai (the Land Network), partners of Trocaire, have been working for years now to assist the hundreds of families squatting on public land in Aitarak Laran and other parts of Dili. Less than a week ago, they negotiated with the company responsible for the flooding a US$20,000 settlement for 182 families whose housing was damaged.

Successes like this strengthen the movement for land justice in Timor-Leste, and show the current strength that exists. Over the past few months, I worked with the Land Network assisting with their submission of a 3-year grant proposal to the European Union. In the process, I learned a great deal about their work and key issues around land and housing that Timor now faces. Below are a few examples of major cases the Land Network members have worked on (photos from Rede ba Rai).

After the extreme violence of 1999, close to 200 families found shelter in the former Brimob (Indonesian riot police) headquarters. In January 2011, 175 families were forcibly evicted and many moved to a site in Aitarak Laran. Families are not asking for claim to the land, but with nowhere to go, they are asking the government for a process that recognizes their humanity, and the provision of alternative housing or monetary assistance to secure other housing. Local non-profits (members of Rede ba Rai) are helping families find ways forward on a case-by-case basis.

Another major land case in Dili relates to the land on which Timor Plaza, Timor's first mall, was built in late 2011. There were 192 families compensated by the company. The original list contained 182 but then 10 other families were added. While many families took monetary settlements from the company, a few individual land-owners chose to take the case to court. The company was found guilty of illegal expropriation of land, but the case remains in an appeals process.

Outside of Dili, communities are working to strengthen communal land systems and protect communal rights which were largely denied under the Portuguese and Indonesians, but which date back to pre-Portuguese times. Communities are also facing growing threats of government-led expropriation of land for mega-development projects including an oil refinery, electrical generation facilities and a southern corridor highway.
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