22 September 2011

East Timor land law fuels fears of evictions, conflict

AlertNet Written by: 21 Oct 2010 Thin Lei Win DILI (AlertNet) - Rights groups in East Timor warn that anger over the threatened eviction of some 500 people from a downtown Dili neighbourhood could spill over into conflict amid fears the government is preparing to take back more land.

Activists and researchers say further evictions could happen if draft legislation on land ownership going through parliament is passed as expected.

Fifty-three families in Aitarak Laran were served with an eviction notice in Portuguese - a language most do not read - a little over a month ago through their local chief, according to Rede ba Rai (the Timor-Leste Land Network), a coalition of 20 non-governmental organisations that work on land issues.

So far the government has provided no alternative housing, although it says it is willing to offer a small amount of compensation.

"Aitarak Laran is one example of how the government is disregarding basic human rights to land and housing," said Shona Hawkes from local NGO La'o Hamutuk.

The community has lived in houses used by former Indonesian government officials since 1999, after East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that led to violence and widespread displacement.

Rights groups say the government now wants the land to build a national library and museum funded by an Italian oil company, and has shown scant regard for how residents will cope.

But Minister of Justice Lucia Lobato told AlertNet the community are unwilling to enter into dialogue with the government, and did not show up to two meetings she attended, sending a local NGO to represent them instead.

Moreover, she said they are demanding compensation for each family member. "We will not negotiate about the price, because they are occupying government land and houses illegally, so we give a little money based on the government's ability."

The residents may be moved by force, she added, if they do not comply with the order to leave.

"The risk with eviction cases like the one we're seeing right now in Aitarak Laran is growing frustration over the lack of clarity regarding rights and protections afforded to those living illegally on state land," Cillian Nolan, a Dili-based analyst for International Crisis Group (ICG), told AlertNet.

Without an adequate offer of compensation or alternative housing, "there's a risk of conflict over the issue as frustration grows," he said.

In a September report, ICG said the draft land legislation will provide the first legal proof of ownership, provide protection in a growing property market, and is an important first step towards better management of disagreements over land. But it will also raise the stakes in ownership disputes and in turn the risk of conflict.


A history of displacement since the Portuguese colonial era, which began in the sixteenth century, has left the tiny state of East Timor without a proper legal basis to decide ownership of land.

Most recently, in 2006, factional violence uprooted 150,000 people, mainly in Dili, many of whom have been unable to return to their homes.

More than half the population was made homeless in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum when pro-Jakarta militias destroyed 70 percent of the country's infrastructure, including some 68,000 houses, as well as land records.

Many, like those in Aitarak Laran, ended up occupying housing abandoned by the Indonesian government, even though living conditions have been far from ideal.

"(The Aitarak Laran community) is living in housing that is well below any definition of adequate, on land that is prone to flooding," said Rede ba Rai spokesperson Meabh Cryan.

The site, directly opposite the presidential palace, is considered government land under a 2003 law which says that all state land during the Portuguese and Indonesian eras, as well as land abandoned by foreigners or those fleeing to west Timor, should be transferred to the Timorese authorities.

Rights group say this definition is too wide in a country where very few people have land titles, and warn the new legislation could provoke a crisis.

Under the Transitional Land Law, which will replace the 2003 law, anyone who has occupied a piece of land after December 31, 1998, cannot gain title to it. Civil society groups have questioned the controversial cut-off date, as it means "squatters" who lost their homes in the 1999 post-referendum violence have no rights to the land on which they are living.


There are also concerns over two other laws in the legislative package that have not undergone public consultation, especially the Expropriation Law which would allow the state to take land for any public or private purpose.

Rights groups accuse the legal company that drafted that law of conflict of interest as it represents a Portuguese property developer in East Timor.

And Rede ba Rai's Cryan said public consultation on the Transitional Land Law was little more than a token gesture as communities did not receive copies of the complex law until the day of the discussions.

Rules for day-to-day land decisions were sent to parliament in December 2008 as part of a new civil code, followed by the rest of the legislation in March 2009. None of these are available in the local dialect Tetum.

"Our concern is that many people, particularly in the rural areas, are unaware of the content of the draft land law, or of its implications for their land security and livelihoods," said Paul Joicey, Oxfam's country director for East Timor.

Other criticisms of the legislation include its neglect of the customary land systems based on social hierarchy and clans that have so far defined how most Timorese live, and prioritisation of people with formal land certificates who tend to be the rich.

The government has given some ground, agreeing to consider the Expropriation Law separately because of its far-reaching implications and the lack of public consultation.

But any changes will come too late to help the families in Aitarak Laran who now face losing their livelihoods as vegetable traders, small businesses and civil servants, as well as facilities including their church, schools and health clinic.

"The old regimes which threatened the people have already passed," community members said in a statement. "The people who have suffered do not deserve to be further threatened during independence."

(Additional reporting by Tito Belo)

20 September 2011

18 September 2011

National Parliament to approve Land and Property Law in October

Source: The Dili Weekly Friday, 16 September 2011 19:24 Written by Ezequiel Freitas - MP Manuel Tilman said the Land and Property Law will be approved in the month of October and will help ease land dispute tensions.

The Land and Property Law that is currently being debated within the National Parliament will according to Member of Parliament Manuel Tilman be approved by October but he warned that if it is not, it will then only be finalized in the New Year.

“Because on 15 October the new budget will come in and everything will grind to a halt,” said MP Tilman last week at the National Parliament in Dili.

The MP added the law has already been passed in its generality and currently is being debated in its detail and the law will not be able to be approved prior to the Civil Code Law being approved.

In the meantime, MP Mario Viegas Carascalao said the Land and Property Law has been with Commission A of the National Parliament since last year but so far it has not yet fully been debated.

“We only had one meeting in Commission A to discuss the Land and Property Law. Not all the members of Commission A were present, only four of us turned up but we decided this law should be made a priority,” said the MP.

He believes Commission A is not competent enough to consider this particular draft law. “If Commission A is not able to consider it we can create an eventual commission and present it to the plenary because our plan is that by the end of October this law must be finalized because people are killing each other over land disputes.”

At the same time MP Estanislao da Silva said the Land and Property Law was already with Commission A and it was not yet known when it will send it to the plenary to be further debated.

“The community is fighting over land and that is why recently the government approved a decree law so that land not under dispute can be registered and with clear ownership. I urge the community to not kill one another over land and to wait until this law is approved so that disputes can be settled.”

ETLJB: The last available version of the draft land law that ETJLB has published is Law for a Special Regime for the Determination of Ownership of Immovable Property Version 3

The public consultation on the draft land law was deficient and non-participatory. See for example: Timor-Leste Draft Flawed, deficient and insufficient public consultations on East Timor's draft land law 

Rede ba Rai Press Release: Only brief thoughts from Baucau on the new Land Law allowed