Community dialogues and mediation for land disputes in East Timor

Location: Viqueque, East Timor

Dates/ Duration: 2000-02 (20 months)

Funder: United Nations

Role: Land Disputes Officer

Methods

Community dialogue

Collective problem solving

Stakeholder interviews

lternative Dispute Resolution

Overview

The referendum for independence in 1999 sparked widespread violence and killings across the country. The political violence had resulted in the burning and destruction of public buildings as well as public records of land ownership. This meant that there were no avenues through which to seek legal remedies but the violence and disputes were escalating in light of the unrest. While this started at a local level it often had the potential to spark a growing cycle of violence across the district and country. There were particular hotspots for land disputes, including Uato Lari in Viqueque District where the disputes had been on-going for many years.

To promote dialogue within the community and try to find a path towards peaceful resolution of the disputes, I was invited as part of a team to participate in a series of 'community dialogues' organised by the Justice and Peace Commission of Uato Lari Parish. Together with a local team and the UN land and property office in Dili , we worked with local community members to facilitate the dialogue and mediate interim agreements to disputes. The result was a community based mediation committee which would be hosted in the local church. This alternative dispute resolution process convened a mediation panel consisting of members from the local community. Local participants agreed to systematically document individual disputes and parties voluntarily agreed to participate in a mediation process. The role of the Committee was to facilitate dialogue and agreement between the disputing parties to resolve the disputes in a peaceful manner, rather than make a decision on their behalf. The process was transparent and open, anyone in the community could attend and listen to the hearings.

Bringing together the community in dialogue after years of political unrest, which unpinned a lot of land disputes, this process of community-based dialogue and mediation facilitated a different way of dealing disputes and provided an avenue for resolution, which was locally led and owned. The focus of these hearings was to reach an interim agreement rather than a final solution. This process was also adopted to resolve disputes in other villages and UNTAET adopted it as a model of alternative land dispute resolution in different districts around East Timor.

Challenges

There were a number of challenges this process aimed to address:

  • A long history of occupation, forced displacement and violence
  • Underlying tension which often came to the surface through land disputes and could escalate
  • Critical value of land in terms of generating livelihoods.
  • Mistrust in the communities based upon a long history of colonisation, political and ethnic violence

Because of these factors and the mistrust many community members were not willing to rely upon the agreement and validity of the mediation process without the oversight and formal recognition of the United Nations. Both the parties and the committee wanted a UN representative to be present at the hearings and to validate the final agreement.

In response to this, together with the local community, we designed and developed formal Interim Peace Agreements. An essential part of the agreement was a clause which stated that the agreement would remain in force until a valid court decision. More importantly, was a non-violence clause where the parties signed agreeing not to use violence while the agreement was in place. While a symbolic gesture with little enforcement possibility, the signing process of the agreement by the parties in the presence of observers was a powerful symbolic gesture.

Aware that it was unlikely any formal legal mechanism, such as a court or land tribunal, would be in place for many years. This meant that acknowledging the validity and importance of this process and agreement was key to the resolution being sustainable in the long term.

Impact

The community dialogues and land disputes mediation process contributed to the:

  • Increased opportunity for community-led dialogue and problem-solving.
  • Increasing willingness to resolve disputes through the process. There were 36 cases given to the Committee for consideration by parties wanting to have their disputes resolved.
  • Improved capacity and skills of local individuals to mediate and manage disputes in a peaceful manner
  • the design of a model for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) which was adapted by the UN in other districts
  • Interim agreements about the land and non-violence viewed as valid and observed by the parties

Lessons Learned

By engaging in this process I gained three key learnings:

Space for all voices: not only is it important to enable space for the participation of community leaders but the engagement of a range people who are representative of the local community.

Collaboration: throughout the process and not just at the beginning. This means that stakeholders contribute not only to the design and development but are also responsible for its implementation and oversight. This provides a clear sense of ownership and responsibility.

Dialogue and time: these processes take time to develop, and may be longer that pre-set frameworks or models. However, by being tailored to the context and unique set of challenges means they are more likely to be appropriate and sustainable.