Timorese finally land property rights

A rural hamlet in Timor-Leste
A rural hamlet in Timor-Leste. Photo Reinaldo Soares/UNDP TL

Liquica – Teresa de Jesus clutched her land papers and gave a shy grin. In December 2011, the 60-year old was one of 16 landowners who received the first land certificates ever issued in independent Timor-Leste. (Lee versaun Tetum iha ne'e)

Although land has been a thorny issue for this young nation, Teresa said she never doubted she would one day receive deeds to the property which has been in her family for generations.

“I’m very happy,” she said. “And I want to thank all you good people who helped us get these certificates today.”

Timor-Leste has a complex history of competing land claims, dispossession and different land titling systems, borne of 450 years of Portuguese rule, followed by 24 years of Indonesian rule. In addition, all Indonesian property records were destroyed in 1999 following the country’s vote for independence. In 2006 and 2007, an 18-month period of civil unrest added salt to old wounds about land and property ownership.

But with the distribution of these first certificates, Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Justice has begun to give more than 54,000 Timorese, whose claims to their land are undisputed, certainty of tenure.

Highlights

  • Timor’s history, which includes a 450-year colonial Portuguese administration, followed by 24-years of Indonesian rule, has meant a great deal of uncertainty about which claims to land were valid. But until 2011, there had been no Timor-Leste land papers.
  • Competing land claims have been a source of friction in Timor-Leste since independence in 2002.
  • Beginning in 2011, the Ministry of Justice will distribute the first raft of 50,000 land certificates to citizens. Surveys of private and community land, which has not been registered so far, continues.
  • Citizens do not pay to register their land.

With support from UNDP and from other agencies, notably USAID, the Ministry of Justice has established the country’s first modern land register, through its national directorate for land, property and surveying.

UNDP has also provided technical assistance to ensure that land and property issues, and access to land registry offices, are central to Timor-Leste’s 20-year justice sector blueprint, the Justice Sector Strategic Plan.

Bernardo Almeida, an UNDP-funded advisor to the Ministry of Justice, helped the Ministry draft the decree law through which the first raft of land certificates are being distributed to people like Teresa de Jesus.

Mr Almeida sees a clear link between secure land ownership and peace and development on the other.

“Land ownership is the first step to developing any country,” he said.

“If there is uncertainty about who owns the land, ordinary people don’t feel secure, overseas investors will not come and local investors will not invest because they don’t feel that their money is safe.”

“If you give security of tenure to people you prevent conflict. Registering undisputed land is a priority for the Ministry of Justice precisely for this reason,” he said.

Under the Our Land (Ita Nia Rai) surveying project, which was directed by the Ministry of Justice and supported by USAID until November 2011, more than 54,000 Timorese across the country have laid claim to over 50,000 lots of land.

In spite of the country’s historical patchwork of different systems of land titling, more than 90 per cent of the plots surveyed so far are undisputed.

Alexandre Seran, 32, from Manatuto in the east of the country was another of the 16 landowners to receive his papers earlier this month. In 2009 he registered land that had been in his family for two generations.

“Personally, I am very happy,” said Mr Seran, 32, on receiving his certificate from Vice-Prime Minister, Jose Luis Guterrres, at a ceremony in Liquica.

“This won’t solve all the problems about land in Timor-Leste, but it’s an important step.”

In the eight years since the restoration of independence, “people were sad because they didn’t have secure rights to their land,” he says.

But issuing the first raft of certificates to landowners is “a way of moving forward, a step through which we can [start to] resolve some of these problems”.

As a tropical thunderstorm started to break, and people drifted away from the ceremony in Liquica at which the first 16 certificates were handed out, both Teresa and Alexandre agreed on one thing – the next generation of Timorese will have more secure title to their properties than any previous generation.

For a people who waged a hard-won, 24-year struggle against Indonesian rule of their land, that certainty is priceless.