Oxfam in Timor-Leste hosted a joint-press conference with Timor-Leste's civil society land network, Rede Ba Rai, to call for a transparent land registration process.

Ines Martins, Research and Policy Analyst at Oxfam in Timor-Leste, receives questions from the media at a joint-press conference held in Dili, Timor-Leste on 10 July 2019. (Reginald Ramos/Oxfam in Timor-Leste).

Timor-Leste: Fighting for a fair land registration process for all

Introduction

Land around the world serves many functions. People and communities need land for their livelihoods. In Timor-Leste, land has strong links to community unity and identity. For all, land is linked to their future.  


In Timor-Leste, there is a saying that “land cannot have children”. The concept of land being limited and is shared between the individual, community and the state is commonplace in Timor-Leste. Nearly 97% of land in Timor-Leste is known as “Rai Lisan”. This is known as land that is managed and used in accordance with a community’s customary law or local practices. 


As Asia’s youngest country, Timor-Leste has made extraordinary efforts to introduce land rights reform in recent years. In 2013, the Government of Timor-Leste (GOTL) introduced a land registration system, known as Sistema Nacional da Cadastre (SNC). In 2017 the GOTL also introduced a historic land legislation package. This legislated equal rights for women and men to own land, the recognition and protection of ancestral land rights, the protection of communities from eviction and more. 


While these developments have been encouraging, there is a necessity to navigate between the country’s traditional customs and the modern processes necessary for a developing nation.


Oxfam in Timor-Leste convened a press conference with Timor-Leste’s civil society land rights network, Rede Ba Rai on 10 July 2019. This press conference called for the SNC process to be fully transparent, since the lack of transparency so far has raised genuine concerns about its legality and its effects on Timor-Leste’s communities. 


Lack of transparency


The Timor-Leste land law includes several mechanisms to ensure transparency during the SNC process. This includes the legal requirement for public information campaigns to be conducted to inform communities about their rights, such as community meetings. It also includes mechanisms to publish official notices in the Government Gazette and publicly display land maps for 90 days to ensure people are able to make claims to their land. While these transparency mechanisms are necessary for all to exercise their equal right to land, research conducted by Rede Ba Rai and Oxfam has discovered that many of these mechanisms have not been followed within the SNC process. 


In fact, local communities had not known about the land registration process, nor properly understood it. At times, the SNC field teams arrived days late to community meetings. Even worse, some SNC field teams did not inform communities that they would be arriving to discuss the land registration process at all. A SNC field teams had also failed to publicly display the land claim maps on time or insert an official notice in the Government Gazette. 


While transparency mechanisms have been built-in and legislated, the SNC process so far has raised serious concerns and questions about its legality and ability to uphold the process fairly for the benefit of all Timorese. Consequently, many Timorese communities have not understood the process so far and have not been able to fully exercise their rights to claim their land. 


Fighting for a fair land registration process


The concealment of public information and lack of transparency by the government has concerned civil society in Timor-Leste. Many communities have yet to understand the land registration process and likely the existing claims on land in Timor-Leste has not reflected the reality. 


Timor-Leste’s Minister of Justice, Manuel Carceres da Costa, claimed earlier this year that not all information can be published since this will violate people’s privacy. While the protection of people’s privacy is a fair concern, the bigger issue of SNC’s lack of transparency has been continuously raised by Oxfam and Rede Ba Rai. Seemingly, the SNC process has not served all communities in Timor-Leste.


Of greatest concern, however, is that the land registration process will begin to award land titles from December 2019. This is controversial as civil society, including Oxfam in Timor-Leste, believe that this will provoke future conflict surrounding land disputes, especially since the SNC process has lacked transparency and communities have not been properly informed about their rights.

“Land is at the heart of Timor-Leste’s future and we will continue to urge the Timor-Leste Government to conduct an independent evaluation of the current process. Oxfam and its local partners are deeply committed to fighting for a fair and equal land process for all.” said Ines Martins, Research and Policy Analyst at Oxfam in Timor-Leste.


While the government edges closer to the land title awarding in December 2019, Oxfam in Timor-Leste and Rede Ba Rai continue to work closely with communities to advocate and lobby for a land registration process that serves the interests of Timor-Leste’s people.