The Relative Resilience of Property: First Possession and Order Without Law in East Timor


  • The authors wish to thank Carol Rose, Andrew McWilliam, and two anonymous reviewers for their insights and comments. The authors owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the people of Babulo, and the members of East Timor's Land and Property Unit, for their hospitality and generosity. Research for this article was funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project DP0556531, with Andrew McWilliam).

Please address correspondence to Daniel Fitzpatrick, College of Law, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200 Australia; e-mail:


Much of the recent literature on customary property relations in sub-Saharan Africa has highlighted underlying characteristics of negotiability and indeterminacy. Custom is prone to reinvention as resource claimants manipulate customary references across multiple forums for property legitimation and authority. This article focuses on the resilience of customary property relations in East Timor. Based on a study of customary authority in the village of Babulo, we conclude that traditional Timorese narratives of first possession, where land authority is claimed by groups that trace descent to a mythic first settler, have acted as adaptive and resilient focal points for the reproduction of customary property relations in historical circumstances of war, colonization, and occupation. While a finding of customary resilience is not new to postcolonial contexts, the relative novelty of our study lies in its structured explanation for resilience in circumstances of war and displacement, based on the social ordering capacity of first possession principles themselves. This explanation, which derives from focal point theories for cooperative property relations, also takes into account a number of limits on the ordering capacity of first possession principles, which support a conclusion of relative or constrained resilience, particularly in terms of contested interpretations of possessory authority in contemporary East Timor.