Thursday, September 9, 2010


This media release is also available in Tetum, Portuguese and Indonesian.
Dili/Brussels, 9 September 2010: Measures to resolve land disputes in Timor-Leste must go beyond a draft law on land titling if they are to comprehensively reduce the risks posed, otherwise the law could bring more problems than solutions.

Managing Land Conflict in Timor-Leste,* the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the country’s current tangle of land ownership claims, and recommends that the government and its partners act now to supplement titling with clear public information, clarify protections for those who will be evicted or resettled, and strengthen support to local mediation.

The need to balance land rights inherited from previous Portuguese and Indonesian colonial administrations with the reality of customary law, as well as the implications of a history of population displacements, have delayed the creation of a land administration system. Confusion over the present and future basis of property claims is widespread.

“Establishing legally enforceable property rights will inevitably create winners and losers,” says Cillian Nolan, Crisis Group South East Asia Analyst. “Unless the implications of this law are clearly understood, and protections developed for those who will be negatively affected, it risks being ignored or, even worse, becoming unenforceable”.

The current draft land law, approved by the Council of Ministers in March 2010 and awaiting parliamentary debate and approval, would establish the country’s first property ownership rights. Both the technicalities and the implications of the complex law are poorly understood. Sensitive issues include the fate of those Timorese who occupied empty properties in the violence following the 1999 referendum, the rights of Timorese living abroad to reclaim old property, and the holdings of the political elite. While passage of the draft law will help resolve many land disputes, further public information and debate should be a prerequisite for approval. Previous attempts to enforce laws on state property have often failed due to local resi stance.

Though most disputes have to date been either resolved or frozen without recourse to violence, and many people are happy with the status quo, the issue will take on new urgency in light of ambitious new plans for government-driven development. Clarification of basic protections and resettlement plans for illegal or displaced occupants should be a priority, as should continued support to informal dispute mediation processes. The government should take initial steps now towards developing a comprehensive land use and housing policy, as well as to engage communities on sustainable ways of managing customary tenure systems.

“Timor-Leste cannot afford to wait much longer to establish a working mechanism for resolving property disputes as this is a key building block of the rule of law”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “Failing to do so could instead plant new seeds for future disputes.”

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