Subject: Age: East Timor's land rights mess

The Age December 23, 2000

East Timor's land rights mess


Just when Sebastio Soares thought things couldn't get worse, they did. After sheltering for three months in a squalid refugee camp in West Timor, he and his wife and two daughters decided to return to their home in Dili.

But when they arrived at the house that had been his family's for generations, they found it devastated, incinerated and, worse, occupied.

There, sitting among the rubble, was a bearded man holding a machete. This was his house now, he said, and he was prepared to fight anyone who attempted to move him.

Distraught, Soares and his family left the site, forced to camp in a relative's back garden. There he would conceive a plan to reclaim his property and try to put his family's lives back together.

The new East Timor has been governed for more than a year by the United Nations Transitional Administration, or UNTAET, but the Soares family cannot turn to it for justice. UNTAET has no mechanism to oust property interlopers or settle hundreds of land disputes that threaten to turn into civil unrest.

Many believe UNTAET has exacerbated the land ownership problem by failing to recognise existing, valid leases from the colonial period and passing out "temporary land use agreements" over "abandoned properties" in an effort to stimulate the local economy.

"There are people who feel they have been robbed of their properties that have been leased to someone else," says Joao Carrascalao, Minister for Infrastructure in the the East Timorese ministry assisting UNTAET. "They don't see any product of rent. They don't receive anything. They are not allowed to go back to their houses, even though they have the documents to prove their ownership."

The anarchy in Dili's land and property area is stifling business activity and foreign investment, depriving East Timorese people of valuable employment opportunities. Though many international companies have shown keen interest in setting up in East Timor, few have taken up the option. Lack of secure land tenure is identified as the inhibiting factor. Few companies would risk infrastructure costs without land tenure. Already, firms interested in agribusiness, coffee, construction and tourism have been deterred from investing. Even if a company leases land from a local owner, how can it be certain that a property deed is valid when UNTAET refuses to recognise ownership?

An Australian hotelier earlier this year established a precedent for non-compliance with an UNTAET property directive. In October 1999, Darwin-based Wayne Thomas leased the site for his 200-room Timor Lodge from a Timorese owner, Manuel Carrascalao, who held a Portuguese title. But the Carrascalao ownership was contested by UNTAET, which maintained he had previously sold the site to the Indonesian military. The land, therefore, would be confiscated, like all properties previously owned by the Indonesian Government. Thomas defied the eviction notice and, 11 months later, no action has been taken to remove him.

The explosive land issue is the legacy of East Timor's colonial history, most of which went up in smoke when Indonesian soldiers and militia torched Dili's Title Records Office. However, copies of Portuguese records remain on file in Lisbon. The Portuguese ruled the country for almost 500 years. But in that time the colonists only issued 2709 land titles, mostly to the church, locals favored by the colonists, and the mestizo mixed-blood elite. Today, it is generally believed that claimants holding Portuguese titles will be easier to deal with than the Indonesians who followed them in 1975.

According to a recent UNTAET report, "few countries have ever undergone the degree of displacement and manipulation of housing, land and property rights as experienced by the people of East Timor during the 24-year Indonesian occupation".

The report paints a picture of a corrupt, unjust system highlighted by the forced removal of entire villages to accommodate Indonesia's inequitable transmigration program. Adding to this legacy, the Indonesian Lands and Properties Division in Kupang, West Timor, continues to produce bogus East Timorese land titles.

A strong movement in East Timor still believes that since the Indonesian invasion was illegal, land and property transactions initiated by Indonesia should be nullified. "Until Indonesia takes responsibility for all they destroyed in East Timor, then we can not talk to them about their land and property," says Angela Freitas da Silva, vice-president of the Trabalhista (Labor) Party.

That notion is contested by UNTAET's Timor chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who says that although the Indonesian occupation was dreadful for most Timorese, it is not possible to erase 24 years of history.

"If people wanted to buy a plot of land to build a house, they had to buy it under Indonesian regulations," he says. "You can't just dismiss that and say that purchase was illegal because the occupation of this territory was illegal. We can't work like that."

During the Indonesian period many locals became landowners for the first time, and most observers believe that if the transactions are nullified, the real victims would be those East Timorese.

The third occupation, by the UN, has unwittingly exacerbated the land ownership problem. UNTAET's recognition of Indonesian law and its propensity for granting temporary land-use agreements over abandoned property has created ill-feeling. The administration's arbitrary use of its mandate to take over properties has enraged both East Timorese and foreign investors.

The best-known example of such action is UNTAET's takeover of the harborside Dili Sporting Club as an abandoned property, then leasing it back to an Indonesian businessman. The move enraged and disenfranchised more than 100 club members who were the building's original legal owners.

"I have asked for the criteria that they use to take administration of properties," says Joao Carrascalao. "There is nothing in place that I am aware of. They just do it."

Another case that has outraged the community occurred when the UN returned to Dili after the September 1999 violence. Requiring immediate accommodation for top-level UN staff, UNTAET took over the Resende Hotel in central Dili as an abandoned property. Without notifying its Portuguese owner, it installed a Chinese/Australian hotelier to operate it and house people such as de Mello, who stayed there for eight months.

The Portuguese Coehlo family, which built the hotel, have been unable to obtain its legal return or gain any income from the thousands of US dollars spent in the Resende by foreign visitors.

UNTAET has stepped up its procurement policy, recently taking over a number of properties once they had been renovated. An Australian building contractor, Karl Ozolins, leased a burnt office building, "the Palapaso", in the Dili suburb of Comoro, spending thousands bringing it up to Australian standards. As soon as the renovations were complete and office space advertised, UNTAET slapped an eviction notice on Ozolins and his daughter.

UNTAET confiscated Palapaso as an abandoned property even though its East Timorese owner has lived behind the site during the Indonesian occupation. UNTAET's contention, that the property had been sold to the Indonesians in the '80s, is contested by Simao Ribeiro, a former Fretilin fighter. He swears he had never seen the Indonesian title documents produced by UNTAET. His alleged signature on those documents clearly does not match the one on his marriage certificate.

Ozolins received a letter stating: "UNTAET will not compensate you for your expenditure ... If you do not yield up the property within seven days... we shall take further legal action."

However, Ozolins will follow Wayne Thomas' precedent, locking the door and posting a security guard. "If UNTAET wants to get in that building, they'll have to break the door down," he says. "It's my property."

DE MELLO remains unrepentant about UNTAET's controversial temporary lease policy. "What would they have us do? Abandon all of the presumed private property in Dili? At least by giving temporary leases left, right and centre, we're having those buildings rehabilitated," he says.

The East Timorese leadership in waiting, the CNRT and the transitional government cabinet, wants UNTAET out of the issue because of what is perceived as UNTAET's failure on land and property matters. The leadership feels the UN's international public servants do not understand East Timorese traditional land ownership. As a result, the Timorese cabinet members passed a resolution last week bringing the land and properties unit under the control of Joao Carrascalao's Ministry of Infrastructure.

They want to establish a panel that will begin reviewing and mediating land and property claims early in the New Year. "We need to deal with the question on three levels," says Minister of Resources Mara Alatiri. "First, by mediation between claimants; second, on a community level, with only the last level being legal as a last resort. I think we can resolve 50 to 60 per cent of the problems on the first two levels."

The word that the East Timorese will organise their own land resolution panel has already reached the streets of Dili, where the interloper continues to occupy the Soares family house illegally. The displaced owner walks by. Sneering at him, Soares shouts: "The laws are to be done up. Soon you'll get your justice."

But the interloper just smiles. He knows that in East Timor, judgment day is a long way off. "Until then," he says, "I'll sharpen my machete."

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