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USAID is one of the major donors supporting property rights development in Timor-Leste. Property rights in Timor-Leste remain ill-defined as a result of a combination of conflicting property régimes (as a Portuguese colony and, later, Indonesian occupation), complex customary land tenure systems, the destruction of land records in 1999, limited government capacity, and generally weak government and civil society institutions. This state of uncertainty persists under independence as the newly independent state attempts to establish a land administration system. A Technical Framework for a Transitional Land Law for East Timor was developed in 2008 with the assistance of USAID. Based on this document the Minister of Justice established a Land Law Working Group which prepared policy options for the development of a land law. A land bill was developed and submitted to Parliament in March 2010. It is currently being reviewed by a Parliamentary Committee, although a clear timeframe for its movement forward has not been set. A claims collection process has begun through Ministerial Regulation on the Cadastre No. 229/2008 which will allow property claims to be collected, adjudicated, and resolved throughout the country if the land bill is ever enacted. However, the Gusmão Administration has now introduced a decree (decreto-lei) that proposes providing a quasi-title to unchallenged claimants.

It is recommended that efforts be continued in the areas of dispute management and resolution, institutional support (through the office of Land, Property, and Cadastral Services [DNTPSC]), consolidation of the land claims process (including support to the determination of disputed claims to ownership under an eventual land act), a system of communal land rights administration, and the establishment of a system of land use management under the umbrella of a comprehensive land policy.


The Government of Timor-Leste (GOTL) is currently addressing property rights through the development of land law and policy with support from the USAID‘s Strengthening Property Rights in Timor-Leste (SPRTL) project. The Ministry of Justice has rejected an omnibus land legislation approach and in 2008 issued Ministerial Regulation on Cadastre No. 229/2008, which outlines the systems and procedures for collecting land claims. Parliament is now considering a land bill that would establish first title for property in Timor-Leste. At the same time, the Minister of Justice is, with support from the Gusmão Administration, developed an alternative strategy that will permit the issuing of land titles through a decree (decretolei) (that will not require Parliamentary approval). Subsequent transactions will be governed by the proposed Civil Code. The Civil Code is based on the Portuguese Civil Code and is currently in Parliament.

  • Facilitate voluntary registration of customary lands. As Timor-Leste grows and develops, it will be critical to facilitate the voluntary registration of communal lands to avoid conflicts between communities and potential investors (Nixon 2009). Donors could support this registration process, ensuring that communal land rights of customary communities are acknowledged.
  • Support policy development. Emerging areas for policy and legal support may include: cadastral commission, community land, land use management (urban and rural), State expropriation, land valuation, and evictions from State land. Some of these issues will require the passage of the land bill and others will require development of new policy and legislation. Donors could support the development of new policies and legislation.
  • Provide institutional support to the DNTPSC. DNTPSC is in need of management training and assistance with work plan and budget development. Support could also be provided with communications, procurement, and inter-institutional coordination. Donors could complete an assessment of DNTPSC needs and provide assistance to strengthen the institution.
  • Provide technical support to land administration. Technical support to the land administration in Timor-Leste could be provided in the form of the expansion of the land claims process (especially as it relates to community land), building capacity in processing land transactions, supporting technical training programs, resurveying, and providing mediation training and support. Donors could work with land administration institutions to assess priorities and provide support to address these needs.


In 2008, Timor-Leste (formerly known as ―East Timor‖) was ranked as one of the poorest nations in the world (158 of 179 in the 2008 Human Development Report) and the poorest in Southeast Asia. The population of Timor-Leste is primarily rural and engaged in agriculturally based livelihoods. More than 50 percent of the land area is forested, but deforestation rates are one of the highest in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. There are potential mineral resources including hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbon exploitation at sea is the primary source of income for Timor-Leste (through the Petroleum Fund – a sovereign wealth fund established by law), but exploration of other resources has been limited to date.

Formal and customary land rights are in a state of transition resulting from years of colonization, occupation, and unrest. The periods when Timor Leste was the Portuguese colony, Timor, and the subsequent absorption into Indonesia were marked by the application of differing and often conflicting property régimes as well as appropriation and redistribution of land and displacement of people. This situation was further exacerbated by the removal and/or destruction of most public records, and the destruction of buildings, during the violent withdrawal of Indonesian forces in 1999. A period of relative calm prevailed under the ―United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor‖ (UNTAET), which exercised legislative and executive authority during the period between August 1999 and May 2002, the year when Timor-Leste became an independent state. However, additional violence and civil unrest in 2006 resulted in additional displacements and occupations of land and urban properties.

The Timorese land bureau—the Direcção Nacional de Terras, Propriedade e Serviços Cadastrais or DNTPSC— was established in 2003 and is responsible for land administration. USAID has been working with DNTPSC and the Ministry of Justice since 2003 to develop a comprehensive land law and policy through the SPRTL project. Through the support of this project, significant strides have been made in the development of property rights in Timor-Leste, including the establishment of a claims collection process that will serve as the basis for property rights once a land policy and legal framework are put in place. SPRTL supported the drafting of a Technical Framework for a Transitional Land Law for East Timor, which was submitted to the Timorese cabinet (conselho de ministros) in 2008. This framework served as the basis for the development of legislation and implementing regulations to establish first title. The Land Bill was introduced to Parliament in March 2010 but a clear timetable for its passage has not been established. Additionally, the Minister of Justice has developed, and the Cabinet has approved, an alternative strategy that will permit the issuing of land titles under a decree since the Land Bill has failed to be passed in a timely fashion. Future land and property transactions will be governed by the Timor Leste Civil Code (which is also undergoing Parliamentary review) and a proposed Land Rights Registration Decree Law, which is in the final stages of development.

Published / Updated: April 2011