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Property: A Tool for Empowerment and Disempowerment in Timor-Leste

28 Jul 2021
By Maxim Mancino and Dr Srinjoy Bose
Batista Dos Santos stands in front of her traditional home, surrounded by roosters, in Bertakefe, Timor-Leste. Source: UN Photo/Martine Perret.

The history of Timor-Leste is plagued by foreign interests and occupation. The most recent peacebuilding process has failed to adhere to its own represented principles of local participation, capacity building, and local ownership.

After 450 years of Portuguese colonial rule, there was a brief but brutal civil war from August to September 1975 that “left deep and enduring scars” on Timorese society. After only nine days of unilaterally declared independence, Indonesia invaded the territory on 7 December 1975. In the process of ending their 24-year occupation of Timor-Leste in 1999, the Indonesian military and affiliated militia groups took with them all land title records, destroyed over 70 percent of built infrastructure, and left behind a territory that lacked any state/government institutions. Following the civil war, The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established in October 1999 with complete “legislative and executive authority.” In the same year, the UNTAET was formally acknowledged as the administrator of all land “until the time as the lawful owners are determined.”

Key among the colonial injustices has been the continuous cycles of internal displacement, evictions, and dispossession of land that aggravated tensions between Timorese communities. The time leading up to independence in 1999 was fraught with sporadic violence. Following the vote and majority support for independence in 1999, violent internal conflict displaced an estimated 83 percent of the population. Post-independence, the distribution of political power favoured the Portuguese and Indonesian settler elite over indigenous communities. Together with issues related to languages and associated positions of power (Portuguese, Indonesian, and Tetum), regulating land ownership and resolving land disputes were understood from the early stages to be among the most important challenges to address.

The long history with colonial occupation saw the application of multiple property regimes, compounding the discrepancies in land ownership recognition, thus creating significant political constraints to developing a standardised land registration regime. Nevertheless, customary laws and practice with respect to land continued to co-exist and apply alongside first Portuguese land laws then Indonesian laws from December 1975. The implication of this is that Timorese communities possessed a sustained capacity to accommodate and resist transformative socioeconomic systems introduced to control land.

Capacity building was the mantra for development organisations in post-independence Timor-Leste. There was a consensus among donors that they were starting from scratch in efforts to (re)create institutions, including civil society organisations. As a corollary, donor strategy sought to “’break’ the traditional cultural system and replace it with a new (liberal) one.” This mantra is emblematic of the technocratic turn and professionalisation of peacebuilding interventions and reflects interveners’ assumption that they do not need to know the local context in which they work. Instead, they assume peacebuilding will be successful when the intensity of technical inputs, such as advising the government on appropriate land rights legislation, increase. This highlights the orientalist bias in peacebuilding that foreigners “have the answer” to local problems and can thus “save” host populations.

In societies where ancestors and ancestral landscapes are perceived as active participants in social life, one way to understand their capacity of social resilience to cultural disruption (colonialism or peacebuilding intervention) is to understand how acts of resistance are affected by that society’s relational nexus of people and land. Expanding the conceptual boundary of the term “sovereignty,” we consider indigenous connections to certain places and spaces as an expression of sovereignty, one which entails a mode of organisation in which the “relationship between land and people is the locus of sovereign power.”

The conceptualisation is important for appreciating why the prolonged injustices of Timor-Leste’s past have been dealt with by sustaining engagement with ancestral landscapes, for example, through ritual practices to address memories of suffering. Throughout Portuguese colonisation, Indonesian settler-colonial occupation, and the various episodes of internal displacement that occurred, customary land tenure systems had been exceptionally resilient and adaptive. This resilience has been attributed to the embedded nature of Land to traditional Timorese narratives of ancestry, identity, and community affiliations. The implication of this is that the legitimacy and authority associated with customary systems are powerful in the reality of many Timorese, as is the case for other post-conflict and post-colonial societies.

The social embeddedness of land in Timor-Leste

Property is an empowering device. It can be a facilitator of self-determination, a source of respect and recognition, and by establishing parameters of inclusion and exclusion land tenure arrangements, express a fundamentally political idea of social interaction. However, these aspects of property can also be reversed. The implication of property functioning as a tool of disempowerment becomes evident when methods of altering land tenure arrangements are unpacked. These can be physical and forceful, regulatory (i.e., through established rules of ownership), or by means of market manipulation which restricts access on the basis of available capital.

Traditional Timorese discourse – the social structures through which the world is comprehended – is bound to the land. Physical spaces can be an essential component of an individual’s or community’s identity. This is attributed to spiritual, ancestral, and emotional connections which link the past, present, and future. The well-being and sustainability of communities connected to the customary system also depend on maintaining relationships with “disembodied others”—particularly ancestors. As is often the case with indigenous communities, the dead and disembodied others such as spirits have agency regarding the well-being and prosperity of communities.

This social structure may begin at the “hyper-local” level of the individual and the household, but they also extend into the larger social structures that operate as authoritative institutions—namely how land can be used, owned, shared, and sold. Understanding these social attributes is critical to unpacking the tension caused by reform efforts to formalise land-use systems. Formalisation undermines the “traditional economy” that is built on customary practices regarding access to and use of land for food, housing, and livelihood needs.

Land ownership in Timor-Leste cannot accurately be described in terms of the communal or common property only, as systems of ownership can differ across communities. Plots of land or seimu (claimed land area used for agriculture) can be “owned” by families rather than communal groups themselves. Even if the land is not chosen to be cultivated, it still remains under family control and is inherited by family members with clear boundaries demarcating ownership. As a 24-year-old Timorese subsistence farmer explains, his vegetable garden is “not his per se, but is shared between two other families and his own—some 200 people, in all—and he has no idea how big the plot it.”

Voices narrating how rights to land governance operate are essential to listen to during peacebuilding interventions. During the Ita Nia Rai program, the Timorese government often referred to vast areas of “empty land” that would be appropriated by the state to drive national investment. This reflects decision-making within a system of knowledge that interprets undocumented (i.e., lacking a formal land title), under-utilised, and uninhabited land parcels as ownerless.

In Timor-Leste, location of origin (the claimed first possession ownership over land) is stronger than ethnicity in regard to “mark of identity and belonging.” The implication of this is that boundaries of ownership are not determined by an active presence on the land, but rather connections to the first claimants of the area. Locations of origin are remembered and shared through narratives of origin, of the first to claim possession of land, providing a baseline point of reference for determining access rights to land. However, in cases of displacement and returns, transactions of passing on ownership can be built on “shaky foundations of opportunistic possession” which create significant barriers to the granting of “titles to facilitate economic reconstruction.”

At the onset of peacebuilding intervention in Timor-Leste, the country’s informal land governance policies were perceived as incompatible with modern Western-oriented national land policy frameworks and economic interests. Development and government actors would interpret ownership based on customary social ordering principles of origin (maintained through networks of alliance, such as marriage) as inferior when compared to Western legal frameworks that necessitate traditional proof of possession as necessary for the attribution of ownership. The underlying cause of this incompatibility of institutions is fundamentally different sociocultural ontologies. The processes (and consequences) of this tendency of international intervenors to resist “subaltern,” “local,” or “civil society” pressure for more recognition and agency. Peacebuilding actors should rethink their assumptions and conventions of intervention and governance which has “brought the international peacebuilding architecture to the brink of a legitimacy crisis.”

Maxim Mancino completed the International Relations Honours program at UNSW in 2019, having completed a dual degree in Social Sciences and Commerce in 2018. Max researches topics in land rights, has volunteered at Refugee Advice Casework Service, and is currently undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate in Public Policy (by distance) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Dr Srinjoy Bose is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the School of Social Sciences, UNSW. He researches topics in Critical Peace & Security Studies, with a focus on political order and violence, international intervention, state formation, democratisation and the political economy of statebuilding and peacebuilding in ‘fragile’ and deeply divided states and societies.

This is an edited extract from Mancino and Boses’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled “Land rights in peacebuilding discourse: domination and resistance in Timor-Leste’s Ita Nia Rai program.” It is republished with permission.