You can’t go too fast on the narrow and winding road to Manatutu, about two and a half hours east of Dili.  It is a magnificent road, at times taking you up the side of a hill, at times right by the beach.  The views all along the way are astounding:  the clear, azure waters of the Pacific, the miles of mangrove forest, and the small towns, one with a newly rebuilt school thanks to the U.S. Navy’s contingent of Seabees here.

Teams from USAID’s Ita Nia Rai (Our Land) project work with a local resident on his land claim in Ermera District. Across Timor-Leste, the teams have documented more than 50,000 claims covering almost all of the urban areas. Photo Credit: Charles S. Rice/USAID Timor-Leste

The town of Manatutu is nestled on the shore of the Pacific.  In a large administration building by the main church, we attended a ceremony celebrating Ita Nai Rai (“Our Land”).  This USAID-funded project has touched the lives of more than 50,000 families in the urban areas of all the country’s districts—and more 1,400 in Manatutu District. With an average family size of 5.8, that means that USAID funds have enabled nearly all of Timor-Leste’s 316,000 urban residents to stake a claim on their land.

Land issues in Timor-Leste are complex, as they are everywhere, and the government has yet to pass a comprehensive land law.  But with USAID’s help, Timor-Leste is now taking this first step—to validate a landowner’s uncontested claim with an official certificate.

As we pulled into the parking lot, people, as they are wont to do before big ceremonies in Timor-Leste, were milling about, sitting on chairs arranged in front of a dais, listening to music. (Bob Marley was on, “No Woman, No Cry.”)  The formal agenda said that the ceremony was to start at 9:30, and I was anxious that we shouldn’t be late.  But the relaxed atmosphere showed that it was more flexible than I anticipated.  (Gradually, I am learning that in Timor-Leste I have to be able to “feel” whether or not I am going to be late.  In this case, I should have known that the festivities would not begin exactly on time.)

While we waited for the main guest, the Minister of Justice, I walked to the rear of the building, where I met the Chief of Party of Tetra Tech ARD, the company that implements this project.  He was looking out over the ocean to see if he could spot whales.  None in sight this day, but the migration is just beginning, so our next trip along the coast may bring better luck.

Soon the Minister arrived.  Dignitaries gathered around, and she was greeted in the traditional Timorese way, with a locally woven tais cloth, and by young children who escorted her to the dais by dancing slowly and moving forward.

By now, I estimated that there were about 300 people in the audience.  Five of us sat on the dais (sometimes referred to as the “high table”)—the Minister, the local Police Chief, the District Administrator, the Director of the National Land Registration Office, and me, the USAID Mission Director.  All the speeches were in Tetum, the main Timorese language, including mine, through translation.  We all touched upon what an important day this was for Manatutu.  For the first time, people could see their land plotted on a map, and for those who had an uncontested claim, they would receive the first land certificates issued in the young nation’s history.  What a great impact that will have!  People will now have collateral for loans, they won’t have to worry about someone taking their land precipitously, and they can have confidence, forever, that their land will stay in their families—that’s how one person described the benefits to me.

The Minister’s speech was long and detailed.  She referred to USAID as a good partner of the Timorese government—the audience more than once applauded, and occasionally sighed.  After the Minister spoke, a microphone was placed in the middle row between the chairs and a line formed.  Anyone who wanted could step forward and address a question to the “high table.”  This went on for about 45 minutes.  There were pointed questions about misunderstanding of the law.  There were cases that brought confusion (one person said he sold some land but didn’t get paid, what was he to do?).  The Minister and others answered each one.  At the end of the ceremony, I pointed out that seeing these citizens coming up to address a Minster and other senior government officials was really an excellent example of democracy in action.  The District Administrator grinned.