Justice in East Timor has always been measured in water buffalo. A goat theft costs one buffalo and a rape is worth two, though it varies from town to town. Though traditional justice was never institutionalised, it has remained an underpinning of village life. As the country moves to finalise the its first penal code this month, a government minister is on a crusade to extend the use of terra bandu, traditional law used to protect natural resources. Abilio Lima, the secretary for the environment, has already convinced about one-third of the nation's one million people that everything from cattle rustling to rape are crimes best resolved outside courtrooms by water buffalo justice. "When you talk about environment, you talk about human environment, about the social environment. I focus on the total comprehensive environment." In the past year Mr Lima says his office has approved a terra bandu system in about half the districts in East Timor. "The advantage of terra bandu is that it comes from the community," Mr Lima said. "Because it comes from the community, they have a responsibility to it." According to Mr Lima, the problem is the penal code: six years of independence and East Timor is still without its own set of laws, relying instead on Indonesian laws last updated in 1999. "People who don't like Indonesia don't respect the laws," Mr Lima said. "So we will use traditional law until we can agree on a national law." Judicial authorities are shocked. "If the secretary of state for the environment is doing this, he is very wrong," said Fernanda Borges, a member of parliament who sits on parliamentary judicial oversight committee. "He's very wrong because he is operating outside the constitution and outside the judicial system." Ms Borges has said she will launch a parliamentary inquiry into the matter. But officials in the justice ministry say they are not concerned with Mr Lima. Although no one in the ministry of justice had heard about Mr Lima's push, Crisagno Neto, the justice minister's permanent secretary, said he supported parts of the plan. "Rape is a crime you can't resolve through terra bandu," Mr Neto said. "You have to take that to court." But he added that smaller crimes like minor domestic violence could be resolved using traditional justice. "Terra bandu is easier and faster [than court trials] in rural areas for people who have no money," Mr Neto said. "But in cities and in areas where people have money, they can't use terra bandu. They need to go to court." East Timor is one of the most impoverished nations in Asia. Unemployment hangs at around 60 per cent and the average income is about US$1 (Dh3.67) a day. Before Indonesia's 1975 invasion, East Timor was a Portuguese colony and for 400 years whatever went on outside the capital Dili was ignored. During the Indonesian occupation, courts were notorious for their corrupt judges, whose decisions were not respected. When the Indonesians were ousted in late 1999 there was a lot of hope for improvement. But although independence came in 2002 - following two years of United Nations interim rule - East Timor is still struggling to create a set of comprehensive laws. Talk to any legal aid group in this tiny South-east Asian nation and they will tell you the best hope for East Timor is a judicial system, including formal justice with trained judges and lawyers. According to East Timor's constitution, everyone has the right to a fair trial and a lawyer and innocence is presumed until proven otherwise. There is no mention of water buffalo in the constitution. In a country where it is estimated that about half of all women will suffer gender-based crimes this year, officially closing the door on formal justice has serious consequences. According to the UN, only 132 women have come forward so far this year to report gender-based violence to the police - far short of the estimated 250,000 victims. Instead of a courtroom, many of these women will visit elderly village leaders like Florindo Mesquita Lorego. Mr Lorego is a balding, snowy bearded village chief in a hamlet hours away from the capital. He, along with a dozen other village leaders, decides terra bandu cases. "[Terra bandu] applies to people who are thieves, horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and rapists," Mr Lorego explained. "People who go into someone's garden without permission from the owner, that's a crime." * The National
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