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Timor-Leste farmers fear Indonesia is set to take their land as centuries-old dispute comes to a climax

ABC News - February 27, 2024

Vonia Vieira in Oecusse, Timor-Leste and the Pacific Local Journalism Network's Nick Sas – Noviana Tome leads a simple life.

The farmer from Timor-Leste's far-west Oecusse region attends her rice fields every day, leaving early in the morning and coming home late in the afternoon.

Every year she produces 50 sacks of rice for her family – their main source of food. But these days, there's a problem.

"I have so many rice fields, if we handed them all over to Indonesia, what would we do?" she told the ABC. "We wouldn't be able to meet our needs and to feed our children. We depend on the rice fields."

Ms Tome's land is on the northern tip of Oecusse, known as Naktuka.

The region is a special administrative zone – a land island or enclave – separated from the rest of Timor-Leste by West Timor, which is a province of Indonesia.

And this is the problem.

Due to a border dispute, hundreds of farmers like Ms Tome have been told that 270 hectares of land they use for farming will be handed over to Indonesia.

"We are just poor people," farmer Domingos Falo told the ABC. "We just live as farmers, the rice fields are our rice fields. As far as I know, the border has been there for a long time."

A history of disputes

The territorial boundary of the area dates back to the Portuguese colonial period.

Oecusse was the first part of the island of Timor in which the Portuguese established themselves – in approximately 1556 – and is thus widely considered the cradle of Timor-Leste (East Timor).

During the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia, the two countries made a deal to divide the territory.

When Portugal's colonial period ended in 1975, Indonesia invaded, occupying the country in an often bloody 24 years before Timor-Leste's 1999 independence referendum.

After independence, Indonesia and Timor-Leste began discussing sea and land boundaries, eventually signing a Provisional Agreement in 2005.

But of the 96 per cent of land boundaries that have been previously determined, there is still 4 per cent of the remaining territory yet to be resolved, with land "pillars" used to try and figure out the disputed areas.

The disputed areas include territory and rice fields in Oecusse's Naktuka region, farmed by Mr Falo, Ms Tome and hundreds of others.

In November a joint Indonesian and Timor-Leste team placed 76 new pillars on the border to determine the new country boundaries of the area. Local farmers say the Indonesian military was observing the process.

The new pillars essentially take away the farmers' land, handing it back to Indonesia.

After a community uproar, earlier this month a negotiation team led by Timor-Leste's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao came to the area to hear community concerns and observe the area in question.

"I feel confident in conveying to Indonesia [that] we are negotiating," Mr Gusmao said during his visit.

"We're not coming to sit and drink coffee and laugh, that's not it. If we all don't want to [hand back the land] all the [Oecusse] people don't want it, it's not a problem."

Yet some Indonesian media is reporting negotiations are finished and finalised.

The ABC has contacted both the Indonesian Consulate in Oecusse, Timor-Leste and the Ambassador for Indonesia in Dili, Timor-Leste's capital. Both did not respond to the ABC's requests for comment.

Indonesia has just elected a new president, Prabowo Subianto. Although he is considered a "pro-Indonesia" president, it is unclear what his stance will be on Timor-Leste or any future border disputes.

Mr Subianto, a former army general, has been accused of war crimes in Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation. He has previously said he was just following the orders of his "superiors".

'The rice field is our lives'

Despite their prime minister's assertion, farmers – and their advocates – worry the new land boundary has already been decided.

Timor-Leste's Land Networking Organisation, an advocacy group focusing on justice and land rights, was in the region during Mr Gusmao's trip to observe the new border areas.

A spokesperson for the organisation said the farmers were "ordinary people" who didn't "depend on the government" to live and any loss of land would have a catastrophic impact on their lives.

The organisation is imploring the Timor-Leste negotiation team, before entering into further negotiations with the Indonesian side, to carry out research on the history of the land to explain "openly and honestly".

Local farmers have told the ABC there has been no update on the dispute since Mr Gusmao visited the region earlier this month.

For Ms Tome, her message to both the Indonesian and Timor-Leste governments is simple: "We don't want to give our land to Indonesia," she said. "The rice field is our lives."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-02-27/timor-leste-land-dispute-with-indonesia/10349750