23 October 2010

Q&A-Why is land such a big issue in East Timor?

Source: AlertNet Date: 21 Oct 2010 Written by: Thin Lei Win - DILI (AlertNet) - East Timor, one of the world's youngest nations, is attempting to enact laws on land ownership eight years after gaining full independence.

While this is an important step towards establishing land rights for the Timorese, the process is "made complicated by the history of colonialism, occupation, resettlement and conflict", Oxfam's East Timor country director Paul Joicey says.

Civil society groups aren't happy with the current lack of land security and clarity on land ownership. But they also fear the draft land laws - now going through parliament - may exacerbate these problems and could even lead to conflict.

Here is some questions and answers on land issues in East Timor and the proposed legislation.

Why is land so contentious?

Few people in East Timor, a country with over a million people, have land titles.

Statistics are hard to come by, but according to a September report from International Crisis Group (ICG), the Portuguese issued around 3,000 land titles and the Indonesians (who occupied the country from 1975 to 1999) issued some 45,000.

The lack of formal ownership is rooted in a long history of conflict and displacement since the Portuguese colonial era, which began in the sixteenth century and ended in the mid-1970s.

In 1999, after the Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum, violence by pro-Jakarta militias drove more than half the population from their homes. Most recently, in 2006, up to 150,000 people were displaced - mainly in the capital Dili - due to factional violence.

Instability has led not only to the destruction of land records but also widespread illegal occupation. In many cases, displaced people have set up home in places considered government land under a 2003 law, which designated all state land during the Portuguese and Indonesian eras and all land abandoned by foreigners or those fleeing to West Timor as Timorese state land.

However, many communities now threatened with eviction by the government argue this law was not in place when they occupied the land in 1999.

ICG says as much as 97 percent of the country's land is believed to be governed by customary land systems based on social hierarchy and clans, in which ownership decisions are made by local traditional leaders who use mediation to resolve land disputes.

Such disputes - both between the state and the people, and between individuals - are a ticking time bomb, civil society groups say.

According to ICG, they tend to be political in nature and involve the notion of "justice" between those deemed to have fought for independence, thereby earning the right to be rewarded with land and housing rights, and those seen as collaborators with the Portuguese and the Indonesians and who possess most of the few land titles issued in the past.

What has been done to address the issue?

In October 2007, the U.S. government development agency USAID launched the Ita Nia Rai (Our Land) programme, which was tasked with registering land claims and resolving land disputes. It had collected over 26,500 land claims in 10 districts as of Oct. 15.

The project encourages married couples to register joint claims, and has helped promote women's land rights. Civil society has praised its public information processes for being more extensive and inclusive than other donor and government initiatives.

However, it has been criticised for weak evaluation, and for not registering many claims made by groups rather than individuals. Local rights groups say registering individual claims in community areas could lead to conflict.

What are the draft land laws and what stage are they at?

There are four pieces of legislation in parliament relating to land.

The Civil Code - which will form the pillar of civil law in East Timor - includes a section that governs day-to-day land decisions such as the sale and lease of land.

The Transitional Land Law sets the scene for all land issues in the future, deciding who owns what land and in the case of conflicting claims, who has the strongest right to the land.

The two other pieces of legislation are the Expropriation Law and the Real Estate Finance Fund. The former would allow the state to take land for "public good" - for example, to build ports and other infrastructure - while the latter is to provide compensation as determined under the other laws.

All these laws are awaiting parliamentary approval, but civil society groups say the three focused specifically on land are unlikely to be passed before the wider Civil Code is approved. None are available in the local dialect Tetum.

There are also concerns over how the laws, once passed, will be implemented. Legal aid, education on land rights, community land use planning, social housing, and mediation and arbitration for land disputes are needed to ensure people's land rights are respected, campaigners say.

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