Ermera District — THE legacy of a defunct plantation and trading company, Sociedade Agrícola, Pátria e Trabalho (SAPT), hangs heavily over the highlands of the young country of Timor-Leste. For most of the 20th century, SAPT, owned by the Portuguese colonial government and other foreign interests, was among the biggest landowners in what was then called East Timor. The company cultivated coffee for export, often appropriating locals’ land and hiring the dispossessed back as labourers on subsistence wages. In 1975, less than two weeks after East Timor declared independence from a rapidly decolonising Portugal, Indonesia invaded and began a brutal 24-year occupation during which a quarter of the Timorese population died. High-ranking Indonesian officers assumed control of SAPT’s holdings, for personal profit. In the following years even more families lost control of their land, as the Indonesian army divided and relocated communities in its attempt to subjugate the population.
Today Amaro Silveiro dos Santos, president of the Ermera Farmers Union, a coffee co-operative, says the exploitation of people and land turned many in the area, his parents included, from independent landowners into pawns. “Because of this history, people are afraid about their land,” he says. When East Timor achieved independence in 2002, it was left with thousands of parcels of land whose legal ownership was complicated by the colonial legacy. The country’s first big land law, promulgated in 2003, passed ownership of property previously controlled by the Portuguese and the Indonesians to the new state. But exactly which tracts of land this law applied to remains an unsettlingly open question.
Along with oil, coffee is Timor-Leste’s only export industry. About a quarter of the population farms the crop. Timorese coffee has gained a degree of international popularity, with Starbucks, among others, a buyer. Much of the coffee land farmed by smallholders could, by law, be claimed by the state. Governments, with only tenuous authority in such a conflict-ridden country, have dodged this controversial possibility. Its one foray into enforcing its claim to land formerly administered by foreign rulers came in 2005, when it issued 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of coffee lands to a foreign concessionaire. Most smallholders refused to budge, and the government chose not to pursue the matter. It was a victory of sorts for coffee-growing families, but it did not bode well for foreign agricultural firms contemplating much-needed investments in the country.
Still, the government remains interested in encouraging investment by issuing land concessions. The next step, says Daniel Fitzpatrick, a law professor at New York University who has researched land in Timor-Leste, is working out how to put concessions into practice. Uncertainty over tenure extends beyond the coffee regions. About a quarter of the country’s 200,000-odd land parcels have been formally registered. Of these, most were processed under Portuguese or Indonesian rule, and many will have been ill-gotten.
In February parliament passed three laws that would allow authorities to grant titles for land with uncontested ownership; set up a system for resolving land disputes outside the notoriously dysfunctional courts; and recognise communal land as a legal category, paving the way for communities to register the shared plots that quilt much of the countryside. Yet many villages and civic groups feel the laws were designed more to help corporate investments than protect individuals, a concern the outgoing president, José Ramos-Horta says he shares. To avoid using his veto power, Mr Ramos-Horta says he sent the laws back to parliament instead and called for them to be made clearer. Standing on the land that he and his neighbours cultivate, Mr dos Santos says: “Socially, historically, this land is ours.” The question is whether the government can pass laws to ensure that.
[Published in The Economist on May 5, 2012]