In this edition of the Partner Spotlight we interview Louis Biswane from the Organisation of Kalin’a and Lokono Peoples in Marowijne (KLIM) in Suriname. Louis recently participated in the Indigenous Fellowship Programme (IFP) of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva from 17 June to 12 July, on behalf of KLIM. In this interview, Louis talks about his experiences in Geneva: what he learned, and how the expertise and knowledge he has gained will support KLIM’s work.
Q: Congratulations on your selection to take part in the prestigious OHCHR fellowship. What is the fellowship about, and who is it for?
A: The fellowship programme provides guidance and information on the various UN Mechanisms that indigenous peoples can use to get recognition of their rights. In order to be admitted to the programme, you have to meet certain criteria: you have to be an indigenous person, live in an indigenous village, and work with an indigenous community-based organisation. There were 26 participants from various countries from all continents, 13 men and 13 women. The selection process is quite strict. You are interviewed and they also check on your background and work with others.
Q: Why was it important for you, as a representative of KLIM, to participate in the fellowship? What is the situation in Suriname like with regard to indigenous peoples’ rights?
A: For me this learning process was very important, because it gave me more insight into options and opportunities with different UN institutions to address the lack of recognition of our rights. In Suriname the constitution does not recognise collective ownership rights, only individual ownership. There are no provisions recognising our traditional authorities and communities. We still live collectively and we have our own lifestyle. The government of Suriname has been condemned several times by the international community for not recognising indigenous peoples’ rights. The most famous example is the decision of the Inter-American Court in the Saramaka case.
Because there are no opportunities at the national level, we are using international processes and filed a case against the government with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). FPP is assisting us on this case. I think I was selected for the IFP because my organisation is involved in this case.
Q: What does KLIM do and what is its goal?
A: KLIM is a regional branch of the National Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname (VIDS). KLIM consists of the village councils of 6 Kalin’a villages (Caraibs) and 2 Lokono villages (Arowak). The main goal of KLIM is to achieve legal recognition of our lands and resources, and to collectively manage and develop our indigenous territory in Marowijne.
The past few years we have collected information to demonstrate the extent of our territory, how we use it, and why it is so important for us, and what kind of threats and challenges our communities and resources face. We have made a territorial map and have marked concessions and land titles issued to outsiders. We have documented our customary sustainable use and our traditional laws and rules. We also carry out research on the state of our biodiversity, for instance the impacts of climate change in our area. We also work with youngsters, to actively engage them in our work and to keep our language, culture and knowledge alive.
Q: What have you learned in Geneva? What did you do, who have you met and spoken to? What was the most special insight or memory for you?
A: I have learned in detail how you can use certain UN instruments in the struggle for recognition of your rights. I have seen how conferences are organised and the role the secretariats play. As part of the fellowship, we attended the meeting of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) and helped to prepare for this meeting. This was a very interesting experience. I have been introduced to a lot of people. For instance, the desk officer of the OHCHR who is in charge of my country. OHCHR does not have an office in Suriname, so we fall under the officer who is based in Geneva. She is overseeing all human rights information regarding the country. I also met with the people who work with the UN minorities sector and people who work in the human rights department of the UN. I have even met with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Mr James Anaya. I have learned how you can contact these persons. I have also learned how to use the OHCHR website. The most special thing I have learned is that we have different institutions we can turn to with our problems. For instance, the special rapporteur on poverty, or on the right to education.
Q: What was it like for you to move from your village to Switzerland for a month?
A: It has been a challenge to stay in Geneva for a month, but it has been a good experience because it was important to gain this knowledge. I have also learned that for Europeans, time is precious. They don’t joke with time!
Q: How will the knowledge, experience and contacts gained during the fellowship help you to do your work with KLIM better? How do you plan to apply your new knowledge and skills?
A: I am sharing the things I have learned with others in the organisation and we are definitely looking at opportunities to use the UN ‘route’ more often to highlight our situation. For instance developing shadow reports to reports our government is submitting to UN bodies, to let the UN know of issues that the government doesn’t mention in their reports. We now know how to do it and whom to contact for it. We now also understand and interpret UN documents or reviews about our country better.
Q: How do you see the future in Marowijne?
A: We are confident about our case with the IACHR. I believe we will achieve legal recognition of our rights within the next 10 years. We will also continue to develop and strengthen our organisation and prepare the village councils for the collective management, protection and development of our territory.
More information about the indigenous fellowship programme can be found here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/Pages/Fellowship.aspx
More information about Suriname, including the Saramaka and KLIM cases, can be found here: http://www.forestpeoples.org/region/south-central-america/suriname