Posted by: rlearmonth | February 10, 2008

Property rights in post-conflict countries

Conflict and subsequent occupation messes up a lot of things in a country, with stable property rights and land tenure among the most common and arguably among the most difficult. Occupiers tend to redistribute land and property to their supporters, displacing people who were there prior to the conflict. This is a particularly difficult problem in a country like Timor-Leste, where formal property titles and rules of ownership have never really ever been in place. Timor-Leste was occupied by the Portuguese for 400 years, followed by the Indonesians for another 25. Not surprisingly, There are significantly tangled claims to property as a result.

In some cases, there are outright disputes about who owns specific land parcels and where the boundaries are. In other cases, the ownership of the land may not be in dispute, but another family may have been given permission by the occupier to build a structure on the land. Or, the other family may have simply “squatted” on the land and built a house. In either case, the land belongs to the traditional owner, perhaps recognised by the community, and the structure “belongs” to the newer occupant or squatter.

Land use changes with the seasons in Timor-Leste, a pattern quite common elsewhere. As an example, coastal farmers plant paddy rice in the rainy season and fish in the dry season. Inland, farmers plant during the wet season, and allow their neighbors to graze animals during the dry season. These community patterns are ancient, and must be preserved in any “modern” land use law and practice. We must also allow for the develpment of protected areas and community property, including rights of the sea and the coast.

Establishing a modern land and property regime that respects traditional customs and practices must also fix some of the features of traditional ownership that are archaic and unfair. Gender issues tops this list. Women and girls must be able to own, sell, inherit and distribute land and property as they choose. Fortunately, Timorese policy-makers recognize this imperative, and the land law will address this problem. The new Minister of Justice is a woman.

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