27 September 2008

Custom and conflict:The uses and limitations of traditional systems in addressing rural land disputes in East Timor

A discussion paper prepared for a regional workshop on “Land Policy and Administration for Pro-Poor Rural Growth” Dili December 2003

By Laura S. Meitzner Yoder Ph D

With research assistance from Calisto Colo, Zacarias F. da Costa, and Francisco Soares

Published on East Timor Law Journal on 27 September 2008


A dynamic background of customary land ownership and recent migrations, overlaid with successive political transitions, are behind many land conflicts in the new nation of East Timor. Some of the forms of land claims and authorities in regions which have experienced migration or formal land schemes replicate customary patterns.

Almost all rural land disputes in East Timor are taken first to traditional leaders and village-level government, and handled by outside authorities only when these mechanisms do not reach settlement. Rural people have a clear preference to settle land cases at the lowest level possible, due to proximity to physical evidence and local expertise in circumstances surrounding the case.

Disputants take their cases to traditional authorities, who hear testimony from disputants and witnesses, consider evidence, observe the disputed land, facilitate and legitimize decisions, and oversee a reconciliation ceremony if the case is resolved. Methods of settlement range from arbitration to mediation.

Cases involving parties from different villages, conflicting customary claims, political differences, and the private sector are frequently deferred or taken to outside authorities, including the Directorate of Land and Property or courts.

Even in conflicts surrounding titled land, abandoned properties, migration, state claims, and government administrative boundaries that require state involvement, traditional and village leaders often participate at all levels of settlement as witnesses and counselors.

Many traditional authorities and government officials are expectant that future land laws will clarify decision-making authority in intractable land disputes and will assist them in settling rural land disputes.

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Custom and conflict: The uses and limitations of traditional systems in addressing rural land disputes in East Timor

Image: East Timorese men in traditional attire (tais mane).

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