12 June 2012

Fighting for land rights in East Timor

Originally published on Oxfam New Zealand Posted: 5 APR 12 Written by: Tim Norton

Land disputes are a serious concern in East Timor, Asia’s poorest country. But Oxfam partner MCE-A is mobilising small-scale farmers to stand up for themselves and their rights, helping them to mediate disputes and take action against government land grabs.

Suai District is 185km Southwest of the capital Dili. Movimento Cooperativo Economico – Agricola (MCE-A) operates 26 co-operatives with 850 members in the region. Most families depend mainly upon subsistence agriculture, growing rice and maize to feed their families, or coffee for export.

Many farmers live on and cultivate lands that colonial Portuguese,and most recently Indonesian landholders, held before East Timor’s independence. These lands have been farmed by a generation of Timorese families who are being forcibly removed because Portuguese companies are returning to East Timor, claiming old land titles.

Other foreign companies are aggressively buying up Timor’s valuable agricultural land to grow export crops, and the current government is compulsorily acquiring 3000ha of land in Suai to develop a new city.

Smallholders risk losing their land, and with it, their livelihoods. They have few legally enshrined rights and this creates deep problems for individuals and the wider community.

Legal limbo
Turning to the law for protection is difficult. The recently passed Asset Law endorses government land grabs and leaves farmers empty-handed. If the government demands land to sell or develop, smallholders are often paid a token amount to relocate; others are forcibly moved to less productive hills and mountain regions.

Complicating the situation further, there are three layers of successive land tenure laws in East Timor: the Portuguese, the Indonesian and customary (current) tenure. There is little clarity over which laws stand. A cohesive Land Bill is currently being debated by Parliament, but in the meantime land disputes are left to be resolved through local interpretation and mediation.

This leaves many farmers voiceless, displaced, and without the means to support their families. They need to understand their rights if they are to protect their livelihoods.

Seeking a fair solution
MCE-A is providing a solution by offering smart, impartial advice to mediators to bridge these conflicts.

In November 2011, MCE-A’s advocacy division held a workshop for farmers on their land rights. Attending were more than 100 farmers, as well as the Police and the government’s Director of Land and Property.

    “Until today, many members of society haven’t had the information related to their rights…[MCE-A] has helped members understand more about the law.”
    – Alvaro Dos Santos, MCE-A cooperative member

Alvaro Dos Santos, a member of the cooperative who attended, said: “Until today, many members of society haven’t had the information related to their rights – so they had no ideas on how to defend their ownership.”

A significant achievement of the workshop was that members become aware of the law and their rights. To many members’ surprise, they found land could be protected in law by collective ownership. Groups of villagers have to prove that it is in “use” to maintain ownership; if it is lying unused, businesses can come along and claim it.

So MCE-A urged communities to protect this land instead of leaving it fallow and unmarked by flagging it out with poles or planting trees.

MCE-A also distributed materials on land tenure rights and legal obligations.

Alvaro continued: “The workshop has made members understand more about the law, especially private and communal land property rights.”

People in Suai are now better prepared and better protected when they are confronted with a land dispute. MCE-A has given a voice to its members, whose growing awareness of their rights has given them the knowledge to defend them.

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