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Land tensions flare for former refugees

(higher-res) Kupang landowner Peat Yan Sinlae and torched remains of his property. Land tensions between landowners and tenant farmers have escalated into arson attacks throughout 2010
(Phuong Tran/IRIN)

Tensions between sharecroppers and landowners in Indonesia's western half of Timor island over limited cultivable land have led to outbreaks of violence that threaten to escalate, say local officials.

"There just is not enough land for everybody. My 1 sqkm village hosts more [former] refugees than we have [long-term] residents," said acting village director, Esaf Dakabesi, of Tuapukan, home to 3,750 people who fled violence in Timor-Leste in 1999 to West Timor during the independence conflict.

The total village population is less than 6,000.

Most of the hundreds of thousands who fled have since returned to Timor-Leste, according to the UN Refugee Agency, but thousands of farmers remained, working as hired help in West Timor's districts of Belu and Kupang.

Those who chose Indonesian citizenship have a constitutional right to land ownership, but land tenure laws favour long-term residents, said Winston Rondo, executive director of CIS Timor, a local NGO formed in 1999 to respond to refugee needs.

"Land is gold to us and without it, we are nobody," said Gaspar Fernandes, former refugee-turned-Indonesian "new citizen", as he is now classified by the government.

He and a collective of 37 families recently gathered collateral and cash to move into government housing in the village of Merdeka where they will pay the landowner rent until they have 65,000,000 rupiahs, or US$7,200, when they will own the land.

However, even if they can save money through sharecropping and mostly day labour, at most 20 percent of new citizens have the identity cards required to own a land title, said Rondo.

"People find ways around it. They have married long-time landowners. Or they may be one of the few with identity cards. But that is the exception. Meanwhile, we are looking at a ticking bomb as land pressures grow," he added.

His organization has registered six clashes this past year in Kupang between what he calls "old" and "new" residents, where former refugees are accused of illegal squatting and landowners of extortion.


In December 1999, Kupang landowner Peat Yan Sinlae came home to a torched home, tractor and land in the village of Oebelo in Indonesia's Kupang district in West Timor. He later learned that people from a nearby government resettlement site for East Timorese were responsible.

He has employed farmers over the past decade - mostly former refugees - on almost all of his 10ha. "They get a third, I get a third and the tractor owners get one-third of the harvest," said Sinlae.

For some, this is barely enough to survive. One farmer still living in a former refugee camp in Tuapukan, who does not work for Sinlae, said his post-harvest share of one-half barely feeds his family once, at most twice, a day.

The Nusa Tenggare Timor province that includes Kupang district has one of the country's highest rates of childhood wasting (too-low weight for height) - 20 percent compared with the national average of 13.6 percent, according to 2008 government data.

Raimundo da Costa Suarez spoke to IRIN at a makeshift community tent clinic where he brought one of his four children to be treated for malnutrition.


Phuong Tran/IRIN
Timor-Leste farmer turned Indonesian "new citizen" Raimundo da Costa Suarez. Thousands of farmers working as hired help in Indonesia remain landless...
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Land tensions flare for former refugees
Timor-Leste farmer turned Indonesian "new citizen" Raimundo da Costa Suarez. Thousands of farmers working as hired help in Indonesia remain landless...

Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
Timor-Leste farmer turned Indonesian "new citizen" Raimundo da Costa Suarez

When asked why he did not move to a government resettlement site, or try to join a land collective to invest in land and increase his share of the harvest, Suarez replied: "I barely make enough to feed my family. I cannot afford the 200,000 rupiahs [$22] fee to move into a resettlement site, and land ownership I do not even consider."

Government response

Beyond what it has done in recent years, the national government has "washed their plate of responsibility and is tired of the issue", said Andrey Damaldeo, a former resettlement officer in Kupang's Department of Social Affairs and now food security officer with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The problem is, local officials are not stepping in to ensure smooth integration, he added.

"Local [Kupang] parliamentarians tell me this is not a district issue, but rather central government, that they don't have the money to absorb and integrate landless former refugees."

But Andi Hanindito, director of disaster management at the national Ministry of Social Affairs, which oversaw resettlement issues until 2005, said former refugees were no longer national government responsibility.

"There was an agreement [in 2005] between several ministries that the provincial government is responsible for taking care of former East Timorese... The local government should be creative in addressing these issues because it has been given the freedom to deal with the former East Timorese refugees."

To resolve any integration problems, he said there is a national "social harmony fund" that local governments can tap, but he did not give details on the amount available or procedure.

Meanwhile, land pressures mount, said FAO's Damaldeo.

"The main problem is availability of fertile land here, provincial food security problems and a landless former refugee population. The [former refugees'] livelihoods and land issues must be resolved, or else we face more burning homes."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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