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In Session: Colonial Land Legacies in Southeast Asia
1: Law, Land, and Language: The Portuguese Colonial Legacy
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Leiden University, Netherlands
One of the legacies of the Portuguese colonial ruling of Timor-Leste was its formal land tenure system and its way of conceptualizing land and the rights over it, very different from local practices. State law played a central role in shaping this new conceptualization of land, and legal language – as in any other formal legal system – was a central tool in these different views of land. Although only a few Timorese ever benefited from the Portuguese colonial land tenure system, its legacy is still felt nowadays, including in the language that is used in predominantly Tetun-speaking independent Timor-Leste. Portuguese words such as ‘propriedade’, ‘título’, ‘baldios’, várzeas’ are commonly used throughout Timor-Leste, especially by the political elites and bureaucrats that shape new laws and regulations. However, the assimilation of these foreign concepts is problematic; for instance, they are used in law in ways that do not match their original legal meanings, or are perceived differently by different people throughout the country. This open doors for confusion, misinterpretation, and conflict. This paper focuses on the legal language legacy of the Portuguese formal land tenure system, debating a number of examples and their current (mis)applications. It argues that, without adequate knowledge about the colonial legal legacy, and careful research about current language use, the construction of the Timorese formal land tenure system risks stumbling into a number of problems and misunderstandings.