On August 8, 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a request to the Government of Suriname asking that it “take appropriate measures to suspend all concessions, including permits and licenses for logging and mine exploration and other natural resource development activity on lands used and occupied by the 12 Saramaka clans until the Commission has had the opportunity to investigate the substantive claims raised in the case” and that it also “take appropriate measures to protect the physical integrity of the 12 Saramaka clans.”
This request is intended to protect the Saramaka people from human rights abuses and environmental degradation caused by Chinese and Surinamese logging companies operating in Saramaka territory while the IACHR conducts an investigation of the situation. Concessions held by the Chinese companies, which were granted without notifying the Saramaka, are presently guarded by active duty Surinamese military personnel.
The Saramaka people are one of the largest of the Maroon tribes living with Suriname’s borders. Maroons are the descendants of escaped slaves who fought themselves free from slavery and established viable, autonomous communities along the major rivers of Suriname’s rainforest interior in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their freedom from slavery and rights to lands and territory and the autonomous administration thereof were recognized in treaties concluded with the Dutch colonial government in the 1760s and reaffirmed in further treaties in the 1830s. The Upper Suriname River Saramaka amount to around 20,000 persons living in some 58 villages located along the Suriname River, one of the main watercourses in the country.
Despite their recognized use and occupancy of the area, Suriname presently maintains that the Saramaka, and other Indigenous and Maroon peoples, have no rights to their lands and resources. Instead, the government asserts that these areas are owned by the state and can be exploited at any time. Suriname is thus the only state in the Americas that has failed to legally recognize and guarantee, at least to some extent, Indigenous and Maroon peoples’ rights to own, control, use and peacefully enjoy their lands, territories and resources.
The case in question was filed with the IACHR in October 2000 by the Association of Saramaka Authorities, an organization composed of the leaders of the Upper Suriname River Saramaka communities, and twelve Saramaka village leaders representing each of the Saramaka matrilineal clans. The petition cited Suriname’s failure to recognize Saramaka rights to lands and resources as defined by the American Convention on Human Rights and active violation of those rights due to the logging and mining concessions granted in Saramaka territory. In the petition, the Saramaka requested that the IACHR intervene to encourage government action that would result in the demarcation and specific recognition of tribal lands in accordance with applicable legal standards.
Further submissions highlighted the urgent need for the IACHR’s immediate intervention in order to avoid irreparable harm to the Saramaka people’s physical and cultural integrity caused by the logging activities in Saramaka territory. Writing in support of IACHR intervention, Dr. Richard Price, an anthropologist and leading academic expert on the Saramaka wrote that without immediate protective measures, “ethnocide – the destruction of a culture that is widely regarded as being one of the most creative and vibrant in the entire African diaspora – seems the most likely outcome.” And, “The use of Suriname army troops to “protect” the Chinese laborers who are destroying the forests that Saramakas depend on for their subsistence, construction, and religious needs is an extraordinary insult to Saramaka ideas about their territorial sovereignty. … Their presence in the sacred forest of the Saramakas, with explicit orders to protect it against Saramakas, on behalf of the Chinese, is an ultimate affront to cultural and spiritual integrity. By unilateral fiat, and through the granting of logging and mining concessions to Chinese companies, the postcolonial government of Suriname is currently attempting to expunge some of the most sacred and venerable rights of Saramakas. In this respect, the destruction of the Saramakas' forest would mean the end of Saramaka culture.”
According to environmental organizations familiar with logging in Suriname, although only 10 percent of the trees are cut in a given area, 20-30 percent of the forest in that area is destroyed by roads and other logging related activities. Evidence on the ground indicates that the Chinese companies have caused substantial destruction of the forest.
According to a Saramaka eye-witness, “The soldiers told me: ‘Leave the Chinese, go hunting here (in an area where the Chinese have finished cutting already). But don’t let the Chinese see you.’ Well, I went there: there was destruction everywhere; the forest was destroyed. In Paramaribo [the capital] people don’t know what the Chinese are doing. Should not someone control the logging-activities of foreign investors? The Chinese cut hundreds of trees, dragged them to a place and piled them up there. They abandoned them in the forest because they did not need them anymore. For us, people from the interior, it is terrible to see cedar trees cut down that are so important for us. And all this destruction made the animals flee away also.”
The case filed by the Saramaka is the first time that either Indigenous peoples or Maroons from Suriname have challenged the state’s failure to recognize and respect their land rights in an international human rights body and, if successful, may represent a precedent that will benefit all other Indigenous peoples and Maroons. The case is presently pending a decision on the merits by the IACHR. The Saramaka have requested that the IACHR make itself available to mediate a friendly settlement to the case that will hopefully result in a negotiated settlement withdrawing the logging concessions and recognizing Saramaka territorial rights. Failing that they ask that the case be submitted to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights for a binding decision. To-date, Suriname has failed to respond in any way to the allegations made in the petition despite repeated requests from the Commission to provide information on the case.
For further information, please contact
Fergus MacKay, Coordinator, Legal and Human Rights Programme,
Forest Peoples Programme