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.
CONTROVERSY OVER STATE OWNERSHIP
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.
LACK OF CONSULTATION
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)