Improving Hygiene and Public Order Requires More Than Policing

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On 6 December 2023, the Council of Ministers announced the first amendment to Decree-Law No. 33/2008 on Hygiene and Public Order, with the justification that “given the evolution of the organisation and functioning models of local administration, as well as the significant population growth, it is necessary to update some of these rules.” The announcement stated further that local authorities and the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) will be responsible for monitoring compliance with the rules and for applying relevant sanctions.

Offences named under the Decree-Law include various actions which are deemed the threaten public order and hygiene, including making excessive noise at night, disposing of solid waste or wastewater in public areas, blocking public roads with objects, installing construction or commercial equipment without authorisation, and keeping unconfined animals in residential areas.

Fundasaun Mahein (FM) has written previously about how the lack of robust systems for control of dangerous driving, noise pollution and waste management harms public safety and economic development. FM therefore appreciates that the Government is attempting to improve conditions in urban areas by limiting unhygienic, antisocial and dangerous practices. We strongly support the implementation of laws which can reduce harmful practices, including those related to violent behaviour, dangerous driving, and inappropriate disposal of waste.

At the same time, we are concerned that an approach focused primarily on policing and application of sanctions will not achieve sustainable results. This is because many of the practices banned under the Decree-Law are the result of structural factors related to poverty and under-development. These include the lack of basic infrastructure and services such as public sanitation and waste collection, low education levels, inadequate incomes, and weak state capacity. Therefore, this article outlines some of FM’s concerns and offers suggestions which we hope can assist the Government to achieve its goal of improving hygiene and public order in a more effective and sustainable way.

FM firmly believes that urban management – including control of waste, construction and other practices affecting public space – is an essential component of improving the lives of Timorese people and the ensuring the sustainability of the State. An improved urban environment will make life more comfortable, safe and enjoyable for city dwellers, thereby contributing to better physical and psychological health and social cohesion. With a healthier and happier population there will be fewer conflicts and improved productivity. At the same time, private sector growth, especially sectors such as tourism and hospitality, depends on a clean, organised and safe environment. Everyone agrees that a strong private sector is necessary for Timor-Leste to escape dependency on the Petroleum Fund and create prosperity for the population.

As a long-term observer of the problematic security and socio-economic situation in Timor-Leste, FM supports the rigorous enforcement of rules regarding serious antisocial behaviours such as violent disorder, littering and excessive noise. Frequent incidents of violence involving groups of youth, including martial and ritual arts groups, contribute to a widespread sense of fear and insecurity and harm economic development by deterring investment and development of the night-time economy.  Littering in streets and waterways threatens public health and safety by spreading disease, promoting mosquito infestation and increasing flood risk. Noise pollution from illegally-modified vehicles and inappropriate use of electronic speakers harms public wellbeing. Other practices which seriously endanger the public such as blocking roads with objects should also be monitored and sanctioned, and FM agrees that PNTL plays an important role in implementing these rules.

On the other hand, the practices banned under the Decree-Law tend to reflect Timor-Leste’s low level of socio-economic development, which itself is the result of complex factors, including the history of colonisation and conflict. To eliminate poverty and raise living standards, the productive economy must grow significantly, particularly sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and tourism. This requires significant investments in basic infrastructure, education, technology, housing and combating disease and malnutrition. However, until now, Timorese Governments have paid insufficient attention to these key areas, thereby contributing to the generalised conditions of impoverishment, informality and disorganisation which exist in most urban areas. FM therefore sees policing communities for “unhygienic” practices as somewhat unjust, and we question whether this approach will promote the wellbeing and dignity of the people. Moreover, given PNTL’s resource limitations, we believe that this approach will not be sustainable in the long-term.

Resolving the complex problems of hygiene and public order in a sustainable way which promotes justice, dignity and human rights requires more than sending PNTL to catch people and apply sanctions. A comprehensive approach is needed to identify and tackle the root causes of unsanitary and anti-social practices which contribute to poor safety and environmental conditions in urban areas. This includes addressing the factors underlying the persistent poverty, deprivation and marginalisation which together breed disorder and conflict. The development of the productive economy is central to this question, which requires significant investment in human resources, physical infrastructure and a business environment which can promote private sector growth. At the same time, the state must increase its capacity to implement existing laws and provide essential services, including the building and highway codes, waste collection and public sanitation.

In addition to these general measures, we recommend that the IX Government continue the process of developing a comprehensive Urban Master Plan for Dili as an essential step towards promoting public safety and inclusive economic development. This plan should contain many components, including the following:

  1. Upgrade City Infrastructure: The comprehensive urban plan should aim at fixing roads, footpaths and drains across the city to encourage walking, reduce traffic congestion and improve health and safety. This includes initiatives such as fixing potholes, unblocking and covering drains, creating shaded walking paths, and constructing footbridges to safely navigate busy main roads.
  2. Public Transport and Road Safety: To alleviate traffic congestion and promote better driving practices, the Government must modernise and regulate public transport, and overhaul the driver’s license process.
  3. Address Poverty and Informal Housing: Inadequate construction methods resulting from financial limitations and poor education contribute to unhygienic practices like the illegal channelling of wastepipes and poor sanitation. These cannot be eliminated simply by imposing fines; rather, more comprehensive action is needed. Slum areas in Dili – many of which are the result of mass displacement in 1999 and ongoing illegal settlement – are major centres of poverty, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and other social problems. The State should either plan to clear slum areas by relocating residents to new housing zones, or improve them by investing heavily in basic infrastructure and providing support for increasing the standard of housing.
  4. Public Housing: The Government should develop a public housing plan, which can provide state-built residences or materials for families to construct homes meeting approved standards. Materials and building design should be adequately adapted to Timor-Leste’s climate, including using local materials whenever possible.
  5. Building Codes and Inspections: To ensure structural safety and standardization, building codes must be passed and enforced. In 2022, the VIII Government passed the Legal Regime of Building and Urbanisation, Decree-Law No. 9/2022. FM hopes that the IX Government will implement this law, including by establishing an agency for planning permissions and inspections.
  6. Recreational and Commercial Spaces: To instil a sense of pride and enjoyment among residents and stimulate entrepreneurial activities, commerce, and private investment, the Government should develop plans to create recreational and commercial zones throughout Dili, including the development of the Dili coastline and green spaces.
  7. Dili City Centre: Dili currently lacks a true “centre”, and as such there is a lack of suitable public space where large numbers of residents and visitors can gather for recreational and commercial activities. Colmera and the area around the old Dili Port should be prioritised for development as the city’s central commercial and recreational hub. The development should aim to establish a vibrant city centre equipped with shops, bars, restaurants, and amenities catering to the needs of local residents and visitors.

In conclusion, FM agrees with the Government that it is important to prevent anti-social, unhygienic and dangerous practices such as illegal dumping, dangerous construction, violent disorder and noise pollution. However, we believe that an approach which prioritises policing and sanctions will achieve limited success, as it fails to address the root causes of these practices and will not be sustainable in the long-term. Rather than simply punishing impoverished communities, we believe that the State should take responsibility for its own failure to invest seriously in basic infrastructure and economic development, as this is a major factor underlying the poor environmental conditions and practices we see daily in urban areas.

To resolve these complex social problems in a way that promotes justice, dignity and human rights, FM believes that the Government must address their structural causes, namely poverty, absent public services, crumbling or non-existent infrastructure, low education levels and a stagnant domestic economy. Investing seriously in these areas will dramatically improve general living standards while also tackling the roots of the bad practices banned under Decree-Law No. 33/2008. A comprehensive urban development plan for Dili is also an essential step towards achieving these goals; some elements of this plan are outlined above.

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