Suai Supply Base and Suai Airport, located in Kamanasa (Camanasa), are the first components of the Tasi Mane Project (TMP), a planned corridor of petroleum infrastructure along the southwest coast of Timor-Leste. The Suai Supply Base project comprises a logistics supply base, industrial estate, and a new town ‘Nova Suai’. The Suai Airport project involved upgrading and expanding an existing airstrip. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Suai Supply Base and Suai Airport was inadequate and many people affected by land acquisition have still not been compensated for the loss of their homes and agricultural livelihoods. The first phase of a highway linking Suai Supply Base and airport with the other TMP sites in Betano and Beacu has been constructed and extends eastward from Suai. La’o Hamutuk, an independent non-governmental organization monitoring, analysing and reporting on development processes in Timor-Leste has investigated the Suai Supply Base project in depth including conducting several site visits.
On 25th August 2011 the RDTL National Procurement Commission invited bids to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and develop and Environmental Management Plan for the TMP. The contract was awarded to Worley Parsons which presented these reports to the State Secretariat of Natural Resources (SERN) and Sate Secretariat of the Environment (SEMA) in May 2012. The EIA explained that its conclusions should be regarded with some caution due to limited time, information and project details. The Environmental Management Plan for Suai Supply Base lacked specific information and was insufficient to apply for an environmental license. But SEMA responded to political pressures and issued an environmental license for the project in June 2013. La’o Hamutuk believes that many legally required procedures were not followed and that SEMA lacked sufficient information to evaluate the environmental impacts. In August 2012 La’o Hamutuk conducted a field visit to the Suai Supply Base site interviewing community leaders and members.
The 1,113 hectare site allocated for Suai Supply Base consisted almost entirely of agricultural land, including areas utilised for raising cattle, docks for fishing and salt cultivation. Dispossession and Impoverishment in Timor-Leste: Potential Impacts of the Suai Supply Base, a discussion paper by Meabh Cryan documents how, in 2011, without public consultation or provision of information about the Suai Supply Base project, the National Directorate of Land, Property and Cadastral Services, SERN and national petroleum company TimorGAP carried out a survey of the land required for the project. This survey was loosely based on the Ita Nai Rai (our land) programme established in 2008 aiming to create a functioning land administration system, but proceeded largely in the absence of monitoring at the local level by civil society. The extent to which local people understood the survey process and its implications was unclear. Fieldwork undertaken in 2015 discovered that a number of households that had received their compensation were uncertain regarding the size of their land, suggesting that dissemination of information during the survey process had been inadequate and that communities had little access to legal support during the compensation process.
Meabh Cryan notes that large-scale expropriation of community land for Suai Supply Base, along with other state-driven mega-projects, placed Timor-Leste’s flexible, complex social structures, which support vulnerable people and households in the absence of a coherent state welfare system, ‘under significant strain’. The Suai Supply Base project proceeded in the absence of a land policy or legislation clarifying either the rights of landholders’ and communities or state powers to acquire land. Lack of legal aid services compounds the vulnerability of land claimants. Article 54 of the Timor-Leste constitution contains a basic protection of private property and a statement that property should not be used to the detriment of its social purpose. Article 54.3 states that ‘expropriation of property for public purposes shall only take place following fair compensation in accordance with the law’ but this is frequently flouted. The legal situation for communities affected by land acquisition for Suai Supply Base was thus unclear and in order to expedite the process the government drafted specific legislation for the alienation of land required for the project. Pressure to pursue petroleum development had led to a ‘fast-paced’ land acquisition process. Beginning in 2011 an inter-ministerial team carried out extensive surveying of land parcels in Suai, including assessments of housing, land-use, vegetation, crops, and other types of livelihoods. It was claimed that extensive consultation was carried out but the little information was presented on what the project entailed and potential negative impacts on communities.
Land deal uncertainty
On 11th April 2013 traditional and community leaders of Kamanasa formally handed over 1,113 hectares of land to the Prime Minister for Suai Supply Base. Under an agreement with the state traditional leaders agreed to hand over the land in return for 10 per cent of the profits of the supply base. The details of this agreement, specifically referred to in the preamble of Law 36/2014, remained secret and unavailable to community members and civil society. Yet civil society monitoring suggested many community members held serious concerns about the project. In October 2012 Dili-based NGO Luta Hamutuk (Struggle Together) stated that the Government had kept much information about the Suai Supply Base hidden from affected communities, who had little information about the process, their involvement in it and compensation. Luta Hamutuk also stated that residents of Suko Matai, affected by relocation for the airport, has said ‘until now the government has not yet carried out any consultation or coordination with our people about the planned airport. Until now all we have is rumours and we have no certainty’. These statements cast doubts upon the effectiveness of local leaders in representing their communities in land acquisition negotiations. Furthermore, it was difficult for local communities to voice opposition to the project because key political figures had been called in to persuade them of the benefits and local patronage networks had also been mobilised in support of it.
When La’o Hamutuk visited the area in September 2013 people were still confused about the land agreement. In November and December 2014 the government awarded contracts to the National Commercial Bank of Timor-Leste to compensate landowners in the Suai Supply Base (USD4.7 million) and Suai Airport (USD2.8 million). The money was not distributed until early 2015, causing local unhappiness, and many residents who had lost their farming and fishing livelihoods ‘splurged’ their windfalls, often purchasing motorcycles. Awareness raising and pressure from civil society over the risk of the 10 per cent of profits land deal - that they might receive nothing should Suai Supply Base prove financially unviable – had led the government to offer affected communities a second option: USD3 per square meter for outright sale of their land. The vast majority of affected people chose this second option but fieldwork indicated that understanding of the deal was severely limited. On the basis of fieldwork conducted in 2015 Cryan writes of the land acquisition: ‘Many see the process as characterised by a lack of consultation misinformation and, at times, intimidation’. Understanding of the USD3 per meter land deal appeared ‘severely limited’. The state refused to compensate people for housing, promising relocation in state-built housing with no agreements yet signed. Building of the houses had only just begun and land for houses was not yet allocated in some cases. Communities were worried about losing access to small gardens for raising animals such as chickens and pigs, which the new 20 x 25 meter plots were too small to accommodate. It was not clear whether resettled households would be able to acquire additional land near the housing plots for establishing new gardens.
Impacts of land expropriation and construction
At this juncture construction of Suai Supply Base, involving expropriation of land for the airport, a port and the supply base had begun. Land survey maps produced by the government detailing the location and scale of land expropriation was not publicly available, but it was evident that the project would occupy a site ‘well in excess’ of the stated 1,113 hectares. The land acquired for the airport extended further to the east and west than had been shown in the EIA. Land clearance and building work for Suai Airport affected approximately 170 households. Land required for the first and second phases of
Suai Supply Base had been cleared; phase one affected 144 parcels of land, mostly used for farming but also containing some housing, phase two affected over 250 households. The number of households affected by the highway remained unclear but an initial survey had been carried out and houses were marked with red paint. The vast majority of households affected by Suai Supply Base were almost exclusively dependent upon subsistence agriculture and therefore at high risk of being seriously impacted by loss of land and difficulty in establishing alternative livelihoods. As of 2015 there was no evidence that processes to monitor and respond to food insecurity had been put in place. Women were at more severe risk as they are more likely to rely entirely on income from agriculture having less access than men to alternative sources of income. Women also tended to be more closely bounded to their homes and gardens with less mobility than men, and therefore more vulnerable to serious impacts from being relocated further away from their livelihoods, family and community connections. The government made ambitious promises of employment for local people from Suai Supply Base, during the construction and operational phases. But by 2015 Suai communities had received little or no training in relevant skills. During construction most of the skilled work was undertaken by foreign workers. Employment for local Timorese people was largely confined to driving trucks and manual labour. As of 2015 there had not yet been a major migration of people to Suai seeking work, but there had been a number of incidences of young men getting involved in ‘violent outbursts of frustration’ at Indonesian company owners whom they perceived as failing to honour promises of employment. Suai Airport was inaugurated on 20th June 2017 with the commencement of regular flights to and from Dili. Suai Airport’s first international flight, between Darwin and Suai Airport, began on 28th September 2018. This air link provides human resources transport for oil platforms in the Timor Sea.
Voices of people displaced for Suai Airport
Visiting Suai in March 2019 Radio Rakambia discovered that while the government had compensated some people displaced to make way for the supply base others had not been paid. The government had not indicated where these farmers could relocate to and they appealed for good resettlement conditions to they could plant crops and raise livestock. An administrator of Covalima Municipality said about half of affected people had not been compensated. Anacleto Amaral, a traditional leader of Camanasa, said the government had assured them of work for the project but “the reality was that when they built the airport everything was brought from outside. And, sometimes we became onlookers.” A Camanasa farmer, Honorio Mendonca, said that the one-off government payment for his 2½ hectares of land did not match the money he had made from trees such as teak, coconut and mango that had given him an income year after year. Alda Jacinta explained that land had been measured but not paid for and said she would not leave until the government gives a new area of land to resettle. Manuel Monteiro, human rights activist and director of Hak Azasi Manusia(HAK), said development on the south coast should be conducted in a way that avoids destruction of productive farmland, pointing out that building a refinery would affect the area’s potential for food production. Gil Horacio Boavida, coordinator of HASATIL (Strengthening Agriculture Sustainability in Timor-Leste) approved of development of the oil industry but said “consideration needs to be given to the socio-cultural, economic as well as environmental impact” pointing out that “In our observation, the people have not yet felt benefits as outlined by the existing policy. For instance, people who live in the area were evicted. Many of them have not been compensated as promised.” He proposed mapping the area in order to separate the oil industry and agriculture areas. A July 2019 ABC report from Suai included an interview with Leonel Amaral, described as ‘one of hundreds of residents of Suai who agreed to sell his home and land to make way for the new airport’. Amaral said promises that there would jobs at the airport for their children were not kept and that he felt short-changed by the government because an initial offer for USD7 per square meter of land was subsequently reduced to UDS4 but in the end they were only paid USD3, he said: “They abandoned us, didn’t pay money for what I lost.” He was one of the relocated residents now living in a newly-built settlement next to the airport. The residents acknowledged that the government had provided them with new homes but said they were uncomfortable due to being unsuitable for the hot climate. Many people also complained over losing valuable farmland to the airport. ABC also reported that Suai Airport had been chronically underutilized since it opened in 2017. A single plane landed carrying just 15 passengers with the next scheduled flight not due for another four days. Referring to the estimated USD120 million spent on constructing Suai Airport Charlie Scheiner of La’o Hamutuk said: “There are much more sustainable, equitable and beneficial ways to spend that money.”
A road to nowhere
A kilometre away from Suai Airport lies a new ‘superhighway’ that, like Suai Airport is a white elephant, built at huge cost but of little use. The 33 kilometre stretch of highway that cost about USD500 million to build is a ‘road to nowhere’, connecting Suai to a dirt road that leads to small villages in the midst of farmland. In July 2019 wet season rains had rendered the road virtually unusable and a major landslide had blocked the eastbound lanes for six months. Construction of this first section of the Suai-Beacu highway, extending from Suai to Fatucai, was completed in November 2018. Speaking in March 2019 Manuel Monteiro of HAK explained flooding problems caused by the road: When it rains, the water gets stuck and become swamps around people’s houses, because the [new] highway is higher than the homes. The people cannot cross to the other side of the road, so they must install ladders. A development should free people from disasters rather than the other way around.” Demetrio Amaral, Secretary of State for Environment, spoke about the environmental license granted to the company building the road: “The company has to plant trees to replace the ones they had to destroy.” In September 2019 photos in the Sydney Morning Herald showed sections of the road that were already unusable; a landslide blocked two lanes in one section and another section of the road had collapsed and was only being used by a small number of motorcycles.