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Pope Francis’ Visits Costs USD 12 Million for Preparation, With an Altar Costs 1 Million, Evictions and Food Insecurity

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Papa Fransisco ho PR Ramos Horta (Foto: Vatican News)

From 9 to 11 September 2024, Pope Francis, Head of the World’s Catholic Church, an Argentinian from Buenos Aires known with the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio will visit Timor-Leste. Preparations for the visit of Pope Francis is underway, including ‘making Dili organized’ as the government’s sees it, with a $12 million budget, and construct an altar costing $1 million. This visit will take place at the time when Timor-Leste faces food insecurity. Preparation for his visit is somewhat divergent to the character of Pope Francis who upholds humanitarian values, as is defined in his third encyclical Fratelli Tutti that calls for human fraternity and social friendship.

Evictions for the Pope’s Visit

Following the confirmation of the Pope’s visit, the government started the evictions operation or the so called mandatory administrative dismissal to community houses located in the areas considered to be in violation of government decree laws. These forced evictions by the government are not mindful of the citizens’ human dignity. Forcefully uprooting the people without prior preparations to place them temporarily or any designated location to accommodate them in a dignified way following evictions from their houses.

A government letter signed by the director general for Roads, Bridges, Prevention and Control of Floods at the Ministry of Public Works, Nene Lobato, on the displacements states that the evictions are urgent due to the upcoming visit of His Holiness the Pope to Timor-Leste.

When Pope Francis arrives in Timor-Leste, he will not find Dili unorganized. Also the Pope will not see the poor people who struggle to make ends meet in Dili due to lack of rural economic opportunities. A total of 40 households in the Pasar Sengol area of Bidau Akadiru-Hun have been evicted for illegally occupying public spaces. Before then, the area was occupied with various economic activities such as selling of second hand clothes, micro to medium kiosks, vegetables and other foodstuffs, barbershops, boutiques and others. The place had afforded employment opportunity to some people and in turn helping the economy of families who would otherwise find it hard to make ends meet in Dili.

“Here is the place where we make money to pay for our children’s school. All my 5 children are now at university are paid by the money earned from the small business here. Now that our place is destroyed, our life  become harder, as the government evicted us without showing us anywhere to continue our economic activities,” Balbina da Silva, an occupier of Pasar Sengol expressed her sorrow on the forced eviction by the government (16/04).

Timor-Leste’s economy is dominated by small scale economic activities, most of which are informal economy activities. From this very place, Pasar Sengol, many families pay for their children’s education who ended up working in the government as well as the private sector.

The place will turn into a park, as the Secretary of State for Toponomy and Urban Planning, (SEATOU), Germano Santa Brites Dias said. The contractor who win the bid to construct the park earns a good luck and better profit. If Pope Francis happen to pass by the Pasar Sengol area, or whatever name the new park would bear, he won’t see the Christians who struggle for their lives there, most of whom are Catholics.

After the mandatory evictions in Pasa Sengol, Bidau Akadiru-Hun, the government continued with its forced evictions in Aitarak Laran two days later (18 April). This is located right across the road from the main gate of the office of the President of Republic. This place has been a subject of negotiation between the government with community members for a long time. Since 2009 the government asked the people to vacate the land as it is deemed Stata land, and the Ministry of Justice would like to construct a national library and cultural centre on that land. It was then changed with the Ministry of Finance constructed its new office there, without evicting the people there. Although it was clear that the road accessing the ministry of finance and Presidential Palace would go through community’s houses and land.

The month of April was not a good month for the 23 households in Aitarak Laran. Following their meeting with the local community leaders in the village of Kampung Alor, unders whose jurisdiction Aitarak Laran lays, the government decided to mandatorily evict 23 households. Despite the best efforts of the Kampung Alor village chief, Estela Aleixo, to explain her community’s acceptance to vacate the land voluntarily, and organized bank accounts to receive compensation, SEATOU entered and brutally demolish community houses. At the time of forced demolition, the 23 households were unprepared, some were with young babies, some children were away at church while others at school. Some families were yet to organize new schools for their children and have no idea where to move to temporarily.

“We wish to collaborate for a good development. If possible, give us time to prepare before moving out. We know the house belong to the State. But we need some time for the families with young babies to prepare. Right now some children are at training in the church preparing for their first communion. We ask for time for them to prepare before leaving, that is how people should be dignified,” Sonia Sequeira, and occupant in Aitarak Laran tries to explain the community’s situation (18/04).

But the Secretary of State for SEATOU replied there was no time for negotiation and ordered the community to remove their belongings. While the Secretary of State was speaking, his team members started demolishing community houses and removing their belongings out of those houses.

“There is no time for negotiation. This land belongs to the State, these houses belong to the State, you are only occupying them. You didn’t even ask for permission from the State or the Dili Municipal [authorities]. The State has let you live your lives here. Today the time has come, the State needs this land to construct a road to the beach. Today is the day for removing things, we have to normalize this today,” Secretary of State Germano explained to the Village Chief and community members in Aitarak Laran (18/04)

The President of Republic, Jose Ramos Horta, himself complained about the forced evictions by the government. He called on the government to hold dialogue and preparing places before eviction. But the President’s plea went unheeded, the government went about evicting the communities. Community members whose houses demolished went to the office of Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ) and lodged complaints about their inhumane treatments by the government. The Obudsman, Virgilio da Silva Guterres received the community and concluding at the end of his meeting with the community that the forced eviction is a violation of human rights.

“The Ombudsman wishes to say that what the government did, through the Secretary of State for Toponomy, against the community in Aitarak Laran is against human rights principles. The State of Timor-Leste is a democratic State based on the rule of Law, which implies that any political approaches taken should respect human rights,” Ombudsman Virgilio Guterres declares at a joint press conference with the evicted community at the PDHJ office (18/04).

Notwithstanding protests from various parties, the government goes about continuing its forced eviction actions against the communities in different places. Majority of the places from where communities evicted are the sites where Pope Francis will drive through or visit.

It is almost certain that Pope Francis will pay a visit the Statue of Cristo Rei, the statue erected by the government of Indonesia under the rule of dictator Soeharto. That Statue has become a pilgrimage site for Catholics, particularly during Easter and a religious tourism site too. On his way to Cristo Rei, the Pontiff will no longer see the houses of Catholics along the beach and on the hillsides. This is because the government has evicted those communities living there on the grounds of organizing the Capital Dili and to welcome Pope Francis.

The Pope will not know about the sad stories of the evicted community members in Bidau Santana. Maybe the Pope will be briefed on the government’s version of environmental risks, legal processes, and the urban development of Dili. Here, in Bidau Santana, the government through SEATOU evicted a three days old baby. The baby is called Aprilianto Miguel, along with his 35 years old mother Esmeralda Gaios Cardoso and his father. During heavy rain and strong winds they are forced to leave the house they had lived in nearly 40 years.

Komunidade Eviksaun, Inan Esmeralda ko’us Nia bebe Aprilianto Miguel foin moris loron tolu, Iha Bidau Santa Ana. {Foto: David}

“I am so sad because when they came to demolish our house it was raining and strong wind, the baby was just three days old and his umbilical cord was still attached and I the mother was yet to have enough force to get out of the house. But given the demolition, I tried  muster enough energy to carry my baby out of the house. The baby caught rain that caused him swollen stomach, sick and could not sleep at night,” the mother Esmeralda carried her baby Aprilianto Miguel with profound sadness and in tears while telling story of her sad situation in Bidau Santana, on Monday (22/04).

Esmeralda was in tears while recounting the situation they faced during eviction. Seeing this, her five years old third son approached with tearful eyes himself cuddled his mother and wiped his mother’s tears. But Esmeralda could not hold back her tears and continue telling stories of their real situation before them.

When Pope Francis drive to visit Cristo Rei, he will drive through the road where Baby Aprilianto Miguel and his mother Esmeralda live. They may be standing by the road to pray and look on as the Pope drives through there, but their house will no longer be there. Esmeralda’s live story and memories about the houses where they lived would only be in her head. Pope Francis’ visit is not only expensive due to high expenses of State money, but also because many communities have to be forcibly displaced from their homes.

Human Rights and Sustainable Development

Civil Society Organizations complained and strongly protested the forced evictions by the government. They alluded to the government’s public statement of the wish to undertake a sustainable development and leaving no one behind. But the reality is different to what the government says. Timor-Leste NGO Forum consider the government fail to follow through its promises of a dvelopment that is sustainable, inclusive, reduce poverty and promoting economic opportunities for its citizens.

According to Rede Ba Rai, an Non-Governmental Organization working for social justice, particularly on land and community housing, the evictions undertaken by the government so far has shown no respect for human rights and human dignity. Human rights principles are enshrined the Constitution of Timor-Leste and the International Conventions Timor-Leste have ratified, especially the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“Is this eviction absolutely necessary, and are there no other options? If it is necessary, it should be done in respect of all regulations and people’s human rights before, during and after the eviction takes place. Art. 76 of the Law for ownership of immobile goods states on evictions that displacement should be done in a condition that ensure human dignity, the rights and security of the people affected by evictions and respect to the principles of proportionality, adequacy, and no discrimination,” Pedrito Vieira, Rede Ba Rai coordinator explains (18/04).

Pedrito states that the government is obliged to provide complete information on the reasons for evictions, its process (including clear dates), and on how the community could access legal assistance in facing the eviction.

Koordenador RbR, Pedrito Vieira. [Foto: Media PR | 30.07.2021]

“The State should consult the people and community members affected by the evictions. If there is no alternative, State should discuss with the community to identify new dwelling place for the community and adequate compensation. Agreement on these would have to be reached before eviction takes place,” Pedrito explains further.

The Rede Ba Rai coordinator also clarify that State should ensure all agreements regarding compensation and new places are well implemented. State has to make sure the affected persons are not in a situation where their other rights are under threat. For example, if the new place is far from school, it could affect the right to access to education, if they loss employment opportunities, and farmland, could impact the rights to access to food and livelihood.

Pope Francis’s visit will also takes place at the time when 27% (364.000) people are facing acute food insecurity. Analysis and projections of the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC), under the patronage of Ministry of Agriculture, shows that for the period between May-September, Timor-Leste will be in a serious food insecurity situation. This situation is brought about by the negative impacts of El Nino on the production of rice, maize and other food items. This will affect Southeast Asia, and not only Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste’s situation is worse due to its heavy dependence on food imports from overseas. This would also impact employment opportunities and households’ food reserves. The most affected municipalities are AIleu, Baucau, Bobonaro, Covalima, Lautem, Liquica and Viqueque.

Speaking at the launching of the IPC’s report (18/04), Minister for Agricultura, Marcos da Cruz stated that the analysis and report of IPC could assist the government with data that enables it to properly plan for support to the communities in need of food assistance and improving food security.

Lao Hamutuk, the Non-Governmental Organization who monitors Planning and State Budget in Timor-Leste observes that the budget allocation for agriculture ministry for the year 2024 is insufficient to increase production and ensuring food security.

“The $4.7 million budget allocated for increasing production is too small. This is the budget for boosting sustainable production, food productivity and horticulture. What the minister says does not reflect reality. Although the IPC report present good information but the government’s policy and budget do not correspond to that. The government is not serious in prioritising the improvement of national production that would respond the problems of food insecurity and malnutrition in Timor-Leste,” Mariano Fereira, a researcher at Lao Hamutuk, explains.

In spite of this, the government’s priorities for the next few months is not food security. All efforts will be put into ensuring a successful visit of Pope  Francis, Head of the Catholic Church and Head of State of the Holy See. The visit of Pope Francis will cost 12 million US Dollar, with altar for the mass construction costs USD 1 million. This excludes the compensation budget for the 185 households or 1000 people evicted from Tasi tolu, the location of the altar where Pope Francis will say the mass. The government has also approved a special decree law to facilitate specific procurement process for the purchase and supply of services for the Pope’s visit from 9-11 September 2024.

It is certain that when Pope Francis arrives in Timor-Leste, the many families who have been evicted will continue to struggle in finding a place to live, or if they found a new place, will continue to strive in adapting to the new environment. Some will be able to adapt and survive, while others might get even poorer for not able to adjust to the situation. Some will face new social problems in their families or in their communities. When Pope Francis leaves Timor-Leste, the evicted communities will continue the struggle to live a dignified life, and hope that during his visit Pope Francis will deliver a message to the rulers to look after the people and Catholics who face this harsh situation.

*English version of the news translated by Edio Maria Guterres

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