International aid agencies have moved into the land debate in Timor Leste, at a time when controversy rages over proposed leases of large tracts of land to foreign biofuel companies and a proposed new land law. The leases, and their potential alienation of agricultural land, were initiated in the middle of a serious food crisis, when the AMP government was financing a number of private contracts for rice import and distribution – themselves subject to corruption claims. This planned alienation of farm land is remarkable when one considers that Timor Leste has the fastest population growth rate on earth. What land will be used to grow the food needed for this growing population?
The aid agencies (mainly USAID but also AusAID and the World Bank), for their part, bring particular economic liberal ideas about ‘land reform’, which challenge provisions of Timor Leste’s constitution and carry hidden social, ecological and food security dangers. After the controversial land leases became public in 2008, the AMP government put out a proposed land law, developed by USAID. Though the main part of this bill sets up a mechanism to resolve land conflicts, it also represents a foundation stone for land and agricultural ‘modernisation’, which would include commercialisation and foreign control of land. While there have been more than 400 leases of ‘state land’ in Timor Leste since 1999, making use of government decrees (Fitzpatrick, McWilliam and Barnes 2008, s.43), and while the 2009 land bill relates mainly to urban land, the USAID project adds powerful momentum to a systematic commercialisation of land that is likely to affect the entire nation. There will be pressure for more land claims.
In Leach, M., Medes, N.C., da Silva A.B., Ximenes, A.C., & Boughton, B. (eds.). Understanding Timor Leste. Hawthorn, Vic: Swinburne Press. 213-18.