More than 50,000 Timorese finally land property rights

Timor-Leste Minister of Justice, Lúcia Lobato (left) congratulates Teresa de Jesus (right), after she had received her certificate.
Timor-Leste Minister of Justice, Lúcia Lobato (left) congratulates Teresa de Jesus (right), who just received her certificate. Photo: Christine Kearney/UNDP.

Teresa de Jesus clutched her land papers and gave a shy grin. The 60-year old woman from Liquica, an hour east of the capital Dili, was one of 16 landowners who earlier this month received the first land certificates ever issued in independent Timor-Leste.

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

Although land has been a thorny issue for the young nation that became a sovereign state in 2002, Teresa said she never doubted she would one day receive deeds to the property which has been in her family for generations.

Highlights

  • Competing land claims have been a source of community friction in Timor-Leste since independence in 2002.
  • Land certificates will be distributed to more than 50,000 Timorese across the country over the coming year.
  • Citizens do not have to pay to register their land.

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.

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.

With support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other agencies, notably the US development agency (USAID), the Ministry of Justice has established the country’s first modern land register, through its national directorate for land, property and surveying.

UNDP 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, a UNDP-funded advisor to the Ministry of Justice since 2010, helped the Ministry draft the decree law through which the first draft of land certificates are being distributed to people like Teresa de Jesus.

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

“Land ownership is the first step to developing any country,” he says, stressing that security of tenure also helps prevent conflict.

“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.”

Under the Ita Nia Rai (Our Land) 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.

Surprisingly, 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 Seran, on receiving his certificate. “This won’t solve all the problems about land in Timor-Leste, but it’s an important step nonetheless.”

Both Teresa and Alexandre agree on one thing – the next generation of Timorese will a have more secure title to their properties than any previous generation.

For a people who waged a hard-won struggle for independence, that certainty is priceless.

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