January 18, 2011 · 9:33 am East Timor:“Without Land there is no Culture, there is no Nation”
On October 9th 2010, the people of Samatrai Ermera gathered by the edge of a cliff overlooking a 35 hectare coffee plantation to publicize their demand for agrarian reform and request that the rightful ownership of the land to be returned to the 125 families whose ancestors lived and died there before the Portuguese colonial era, when it was converted into a coffee plantation.
Today, the Gou-io plantation owner pays these families to pick coffee for US$0.05 a kilo. The new generation is demanding that this land be redistributed so they can grow food crops to sustain themselves.
On this misty Saturday morning the families of Samatrai village organized themselves into 6 groups representing the Uma Lisan or ancestral houses. These ancestral houses are the cultural fiber of Timorese society. They define the individual, their place in the community and connection to the land; they represent the guiding force of the ancestors. The ancestors are buried in the land and are perceived to protect it. The word for these timeless guardians is rai nain, literally “land owner”. According to customary systems the Uma Lisan is the defining arbitrator in settling disputes. In stating their claims through the Uma Lisan, these families are calling on the highest order of the land to testify in their struggle.
The story of this community is the story of the district of Ermera, perched high in the mountains of East Timor; Ermera is the prime site of coffee production. This black gold, which accounts for at least 90% of commodities exports in Timor Leste, renders the land extremely valuable; those who control plantations, often descended from colonists; do not want to see them split up and given back. It is not uncommon for plantation owners to threaten local communities; as it was done in Gou- io on September 10th 2010, when shots were fired into the air, allegedly by a police officer in plainclothes, as the community was mobilizing.
Plantations like Gou-io were set up during the late Portuguese colonial era and persisted through the Indonesian military occupation, until the present To the community whose ancestors owned this land, independence from foreign occupation means they should have their land back.
Eight years after its formally recognized independence East Timor continues without a legal framework to decide land ownership. In the absence of which, arbitrating land claims become fertile ground for conflict. Many of the conflicts to date have been managed through ‘informal’ local mediation, a mark of the strength of traditional systems.
The draft land law, which is now sitting in Parliament for approval, potentially offers protection to customary land but there has been no consultation or piloting of this. The risk is that the wrong structures could be put in place undermining rather than protecting customary land.
The residents of Samatrai, tired of being peons on the plantation called on UNAER, the Ermera Agricultural Farmers Union, for help. UNAER, inaugurated in 2008, has 4000 members; all small farmers from Ermera district, many facing similar challenges. UNAER supports agrarian reform in Timor Leste; particularly concerned about issues of land, they recognize that without a proper legal framework farmers like those in Samatrai can easily become victims of the legacy of colonial occupation which originally took their land away. UNAER has enjoyed support from long time CAFOD partner KSI; since its inception it has assisted three communities in the process of gaining access to their land and the fight is far from over.