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Land Rights and Sustainable Development in East Timor


Summary of full paper

Pedro de Sousa Xavier, Manager Land Registration, ETTA Land and Property Unit



East Timor has experienced a long history with many fluctuations. As a result of extended conflict, both previous regimes did not prioritise land rights in East Timor. Land conflicts arising today have drawn attention to this issue. Uncertainty with regards to land ownership is the cause of many current problems in East Timor, and will continue to do be into the future.


Rural communities continue to live according to the customs of their ancestors. Customary law is varied between patrilineal (kemak) and matrilineal (bunak) systems. The same applies to Customary Land Law. Proof of land ownership by a piece of paper has never been thoroughly instituted in East Timor.


Over the past 500 years there have been some benefits for urban communities especially in Dili. In 1975 registered land/land with proof of ownership (Alvara) numbered around 2,709 parcels. During the 24 years of the Indonesian rule, this increased to between approximately 44,091 and 46,800 land parcels (Nalle 1998:10). This means that only 4.4% of land parcels owned by the 186,743 heads of families in East Timor (East Timor in Figures 1997:37) were accorded a clear status.


Much proof of land ownership (sertifikat/alvara) was destroyed along with property and possessions in 1975 and 1999. At present, proof of cultivating the land and statements from the community are available though they may be contested.


Regulation No. 1/1999 gave UNTAET the mandate to administer all movable and immovable assets in East Timor, both government owned and those abandoned after the 30th of August 1999. The UNTAET Land and Property Unit allocates land/properties to investors/private sector conducting business activities in East Timor. Around 250 allocations have been made through Temporary Use Agreements (TUA).


On the 25th of October 2000, the UNTAET Cabinet decided that the Land and Property Unit would not register rights but would receive land claims in East Timor. Land rights would only be decided conclusively after independence. This decision clarified the functions of the Land and Property Unit during the transitional period.


Land Rights and Customary Law

Land rights are effected when a member of the group that owns the land (ema rai nain) and members of other groups (ema rai seluk/ema lao rai) reach agreement and put a marker on a certain area of land (tara tada). Then the land is marked as cultivated land (lere rai or fila rai) (Xavier: 1997). Consequently if the land is cultivated continuously, the cultivator has the right of ownership (rai ninian/aurea). If the land being worked and planted is abandoned, the owner who first cultivated the land has the initial right (toos fatin or natar fatin). This initial right of indigenous people/clans can be passed on to heirs. Those who are not members of the group that own the land only have rights over produce from the land (halo deit han deit). Such a land ownership system fosters shifting cultivation, after crops have been harvested, and the fertility of the land has decreased.


Land and Sustainable Development

Every activity on the Earth requires land. Land resources need to be conserved and protected from degradation to ensure harmony with nature.


Physical aspects of land such as site dimensions, location, and topography do not change much over time. However land use and production do change, as do rights and ownership, both of which change relatively often.


The physical and legal aspects of land management are like two sides of a coin. They can be differentiated but cannot be separated. Many land use problems are due to uncoordinated land management, that in turn is the result of development planning that is isolated by sector. Land management needs to integrated across sectors.


The land issue that is increasingly affecting government agencies and the community in terms of development is how and where can we obtain suitable land for development.



1.      The current problem in terms of land tenure is the uncertainty regarding the status of land due to the change in legal system. We are attempting an integrated approach to create legal certainty over land ownership.

2.      The availability of suitable land needs to be guaranteed for the various development sectors, to encourage as much investment as possible in order to achieve economic growth.

3.      The issue of sustainable development is not only one of integration between related agencies but requires a united viewpoint amongst all parties involved, including the executive and juridical bodies. This approach is necessary because environmental and land issues are related.

4.      With an increase in development, comes an increase in the number of requests for land. Consultations should be held with landowners to avoid problems that may obstruct the development process. Problems arise in terms of control and ownership of land held with land titles. Principles that need to be considered include:

        development should not decrease the area of fertile agricultural land and should account for preservation of natural resources;

        the interests of investors and those affected by the project should be balanced.





1.      Nalle, Jermias, 1998. Pengarahan Kakanwil pada Rapat Kerja di Lingkungan Badan Pertanahan Nasional Propinsi Timor Timur, Kepala Kantor Wilayah Badan Pertanahan Nasional Propinsi Timor Timur, Dili.


2.      East Timor in Figures 1997, in Coorperation With Regional Development Planning Board of East Timor Province and Central Board of Statistics of East Timor Province, Dili.


3.      Xavier, Pedro de Sousa, 1997. Study tentang Hukum Pertanahan Adat Timor Timur di Kecamatan Uato-Carbau Kabupaten Viqueque, Skripsi Sekolah Tinggi Pertanahan Nasional Yogyakarta, Badan Pertanahan Nasional, Yogyakarta