11 July 2009

East Timor's proposed land law will give citizens back their country

The land law will prove instrumental in the country's development, say experts. DILI, 10 July 2009 (IRIN) - A draft Land Law recently released by the Ministry of Justice, which will affect all 1.1 million Timor-Leste citizens, is vital for the fledgling nation's development, say specialists.

Ita Nia rai (“our land”) – a five-year, US$10-million project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – will help the government develop a technical framework for land administration.

According to Ibere Lopes, a legal specialist for the project, both the Portuguese colonial system and the Indonesian system were based on state control of land, so the Portuguese and Indonesian states controlled ownership and granted secondary rights to individuals or companies.

“That system disappeared with independence [in 2002], so all the land reverted to the state, even though that’s not the perception. The land law needs to address this discrepancy and recognize people’s ownership rights.”

The draft Land Law was unveiled at a public consultation in Dili, the capital, on 12 June and the Ministry of Justice will now take the draft to all 13 districts for public feedback.

But registering Timor-Leste’s estimated 150,000-200,000 households is a massive undertaking.

About 7 percent of claims have been disputed already, but not until the law is actually approved can the government deal with the bulk of such cases.

Breanna Ridsdel, Ita nia rai’s task leader for public information and awareness, says registering the 50,000 or so households in urban areas is going to take at least a couple of years.

“The government’s plan is to prioritise urban areas. At the moment we have about 1,600 parcels recorded in four districts: Liquica, Manatuto, Aileu and Baucau,” she said.

Lopes says people who have been living in the same place peacefully and continuously since before 1 January 1999, with a few exceptions, will be entitled to “special adverse possession” ownership rights.

In other cases, previous rights granted by the Portuguese or Indonesian government will be honoured as long as the claimant is the current ossessor of the land.

Likewise, rights of ownership will go to uncontested claims as long as the property is outside the state’s domain.

Making it work

But there is concern that the government’s desire to have the public consultation wrapped up by September could leave room for error, says Meabh Cryan of Rede ba Rai, a network of 20 national and international NGOs, which has been pushing for an extension.

“One issue that jumps out is about community land. What happens in the draft is that the state has the responsibility to consult the community [about third-party usage of land], but they don’t have to follow that consultation, so essentially you’re giving community land to the state,” she said.

Ines Martins, from local NGO La’o Hamutuk, which is part of the Land Network, also thinks several issues need addressing.

“In the law there’s special adverse possession, but people who will receive that have to be living on that land before 1999. In 1999, a lot of Timorese became refugees and went to Indonesia or Australia, so many people haven’t been on their land for 10 years,” she said.

The Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste was characterised by violence, with up to 200,000 deaths, while in 1999, the departing Indonesian army and its militias destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure and forced about a third of the population over the border into neighbouring West Timor.

The Cadastral Commission, a land arbitration board, will tackle disputes, with three members nominated by the prime minister, justice minister and National Directorate for Land, Property and Cadastral Services.

“That only represents the government body. It’s very important that that body should be neutral,” added Martins.

Another potential problem is the issue of land certificates awarded during Indonesian times, when 10-30 percent of titles may have been handed out illegally, according to Australian National University academic Daniel Fitzpatrick’s 2002 book, Land Claims in East Timor.

“Also, a lot of people were forced to move from their land during Indonesian times, so the law may not consider them,” Martins said. mc/ds/mw [ENDS]

See also East Timor Land Rights: Restitution Not Possession - A Comment on the Draft Land Law

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