On Clarifying Land Ownership in Timor-Leste

USAID Timor-Leste

We would like to thank Professor Tim Anderson for the interesting article “Privatizing Land in Timor-Leste,” which was originally published in Timor-Leste’s Kla’ak (The Flame) newspaper and was posted on ETAN on September 16, 2008.

The article raises salient points about key issues Timor-Leste is facing at the moment, including the undervaluation and underutilization of land, the sustainability of certain agricultural practices, and food security. Professor Anderson does a good job of describing the interconnectedness of these issues, using as a starting point recent high-profile land lease arrangements involving the Government of Timor-Leste.

We would like to clarify a few points pertaining to USAID’s work, particularly with respect to what the author calls “privatization of land:”

(1) The author of the article “Privatizing Land” seems to be equating our efforts to clarify land ownership in Timor-Leste with “commercialization” or exploitation of land:

Through the Strengthening Property Rights (known locally as Ita Nia Rai) program, USAID is supporting the Government to (1) systematically collect and record land claims and (2) develop legislation to allow for the issuance of first-time ownership certificates or titles. All subsequent land transactions will be governed by the country’s Civil Code, the draft of which is pending approval by the Council of Ministers.

We believe the initiative to collect land claims nation-wide will, in fact, protect the rights of Timorese, individually and collectively, to their land. By creating a comprehensive record of current land use and claims to land ownership, the rights of the current land users — mostly small-scale farmers — will be recorded and ultimately recognized by law.

(2) We agree with the author that “undervaluation of land” is a problem in developing countries like Timor-Leste.

The author himself says that “uncertainty over title” contributes to undervaluation of land. Informed land titling, which is what we are promoting, should improve the valuation of land and make it more attractive for owners to make production-enhancing investments in their land, thereby contributing to improved food security.

We do not deny that clearer land ownership may increase the number of land transactions in Timor-Leste. Indeed, it would be a natural consequence of correcting the undervaluation of land. However, with clearer ownership, these sales will be more informed sales, with less risk of Timorese being taken advantage of due to unclear or multiple land claims.

In addition, a system that clearly records land ownership, based on current and historical land usage, is likely to help prevent the type of land deals that Professor Anderson is criticizing in his article.

(3) The author claims that “the big powers, through AusAID, USAID, and the World Bank…would like to see Timor-Leste’s constitution amended”, to allow foreign corporations to own land.

We have not advocated amending the constitution to allow foreign corporations to own land, and we are not aware of any “push” or proposal to do so.

(4) The author accuses the big powers of “hostility” to self-reliance and self-sufficiency for Timor-Leste.

USAID supports Timor-Leste’s goal of fully realizing its agricultural potential and increasing agricultural productivity and farmers’ incomes. U.S. assistance in the area of agriculture in Timor-Leste supports efforts to transform the agriculture system from its current subsistence nature to one that is profitable and self-reliant.

In 2006, then Prime Minister José Ramos-Horta asked the international community for assistance to develop a system to provide the people of Timor-Leste with secure land rights as a way of promoting social stability and laying a strong foundation for economic growth. This request was supported by Timor-Leste’s own land tenure experts within the National Directorate of Land, Property and Cadastral Services (DNTPSC), who identified land tenure issues as a potential trigger for conflict throughout the nation. Numerous experts noted that a greater number of Timorese people themselves were speaking of the need for secure property rights during community consultations. USAID’s 2006 conflict assessment also raised concerns that uncertainty over land ownership and the inability to resolve land conflicts could be a contributing factor to future violent conflict in Timor-Leste. In early 2007, the Strengthening Property Rights program was part of a comprehensive package of assistance launched by USAID following the recommendations of the conflict assessment.

I thank the author again for the relevant opinion piece and this opportunity to address the issues raised.

Mark White
Representative, USAID Timor-Leste

U.S. Agency for International Development
Rua Sergio Vieira de Mello
Farol, Dili, Timor-Leste
Phone: (670) 332-2211/2
Fax: (670) 332-2216

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