Spoken words, written documents and grounded practices: understanding land claims from an 'analytic of assemblage'
Susanna Barnes Department of Archaeology and Anthropology - University of Saskatchewan (DArch&Anth-USask), CANADA
Development actors in Timor-Leste, led by the World bank, have promoted the idea that legalization and titling of land rights are essential to obtaining land tenure security, stimulating investment, particularly in the agricultural sector, and improving local land markets. Central to this goal is an understanding of property that centres on the notion of ‘ownership’ understood as the rights exercised by (usually) a single, “identifiable owner, identified by formal title, exercising absolute control, distinguished from others by boundaries that protect the owner from non-owners by granting the owner the right to exclude” (Singer 1996, see also World Bank 2018, USAID 2013). Yet, qualitative and quantitative studies have shown that local understandings of land ownership do not necessarily correspond to this model (Yoder, 2011, Fitzpatrick et al. 2016, Asia Foundation 2016). Despite these contrasting conceptual frameworks, land formalisation has been a priority for successive governments of Timor-Leste. In this paper, I draw on Li’s (2007, 2014) work on ‘practices of assemblage’ to explore the nature and effects of land formalization processes on local understandings of land ownership in Timor-Leste. I focus, in particular, on how these ‘assemblages’ are constituted in specific ‘inscription devices’ (Li 2014, 589) – spoken words, written documents and grounded practices – that form the basis of claims to land.