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Surinamese Government Still Refuses to Recognize Indigenous and Maroon Land Rights

Indigenous and Maroon rights to own their ancestral territories are not
recognised in any form in the laws of Suriname, making it the only state in
the western hemisphere in which Indigenous peoples live that does not in
some way legally recognise these rights. It also appears that, despite
pressure from Indigenous peoples and Maroons, the government has no
intention of constructively addressing this important human rights issue.
Not only are they not willing to recognise Indigenous and Maroon territorial
rights, the government is actively violating these rights by granting vast
areas of the rainforest interior of the country as concessions to
multinational logging and mining companies and by licensing Brazillian
small-scale miners to legally work in Suriname. These concessions are all
granted without even notifying the affected communities, let alone seeking
their consent, even if the villages fall in the middle of the concession.

The notorious Indonesian logging company, MUSA, for instance, has recently
acquired 800,000 hectares of concessions through a variety of front
companies, most of which impact on Indigenous and Maroon communities. These
concessions were granted despite widespread official knowledge that MUSA has
systematically abused Surinamese forestry laws and the environment for over
five years, even to the point of cutting down experimental forests
established to research sustainable forestry practices. Indonesian giant,
PT Barito Pacific, is also in the process of acquiring a 600,000 hectare
concession in central-east Suriname, that encompasses a number of Maroon
villages. Barito officials were accompanied by National Army troops and
helicopters when they visited the concession area. Malaysian company,
Berjaya Berhad, is also active in Suriname, operating both under its own
name and under the names of front companies. NV Tacoba (a.k.a. NV Topco),
whose parent company is incorporated in Hong Kong, arrived recently,
angering Maroon communities affected by their operations.

Mining companies are mostly Canadian. They include Golden Star Resources
and Cambior (partners in the infamous OMAI mine in Guyana), Placer Dome,
BHP, Canarc, Savannah Resources, Attwood Gold and Blue Ribbon Resources. Although
depresssed gold prices have affected mining operations, these companies
remain active in Suriname. Mining concessions affect around half of the
Indigenous and Maroon communities in the country. Golden Star and Cambior
plan to evict the Maroon community of Nieuw Koffiekamp (for the second time
in 34 years) to make way for the Gross Rosebel gold mine and ndigenous and
Maroon communities in the Benzdorp/Lawa region face the prospect of a number
of large open pit gold mines operated by Golden Star, BHP and Placer Dome in
the coming five years. These companies have been responsible for some of
the worst mining disasters in recent history (OMAI. Porgera, Marcopper and
Ok Tedi). Suriname has no environmental laws and monitoring capacity is

Members of the military and government are also active in mining and
logging, either directly or as concession holders that are optioned to
others for exploitation. The interior is being militarised by the
construction of military bases and police posts at strategic points, usually
in connection with mining or logging operations. This is widely viewed as
an attempt by the government to ensure that Indigenous peoples and Maroons
stay in line and protection for the operations of military leaders,
government officials and multinationals.

Small-scale miners, some of which are Maroons and Indigenous people, are
causing serious environmental, social and health problems throughout the
interior. Matawai Maroons, for instance, are forced to import water from
the city because their rivers and creeks have been polluted by miners. They
also report catching fish with soapy, white eyes and tumors. Wayana Indians
report that they are unable to use the main river in their territory due to
pollution. They say that the river water causes vommiting, skin rashes and
diahrea. The government has contributed to this problem by licensing
Brazilian small-scale miners to legally operate in the country. A license
costs US$200 for 6 months to a year. After paying the fee, the miners are
turned lose in the interior without any supervison. They frequently employ
heavily armed body guards, some of whom have been involved in shoot-outs
with local communities that have objected to their presence. Malaria is
also reported in Indigenous and Maroon communities where it has not existed
previously, areas in which the Brazilians have begun working. The situation
has become so bad that parts of the interior are routinely referred to as
the "wild west" by government authorities and the media.

"The Tapir Doesn't Stay in the Village"

The Surinamese government recently held a meeting with the traditional
authorities of Indigenous peoples and Maroons, during which it installed a
Council for the Development of the Interior (CDI). The CDI was originally
proposed in the 1992 Peace Accord that concluded a six-year long civil war
between the military dictatorship and Indigenous and Maroon insurgents. It
was intended to be an advisory body to the government on development and
other issues in the interior. It was first installed by the previous
government in 1995, but was boycotted by the Indigenous peoples who objected
to its classification as an advisory body to the Ministry of Regional
Development and its lack of any real powers or authority. The present
government dissolved the CDI earlier this year and then proceeded to appoint
new members. The Chair and officers of the new CDI are loyal members of the
ruling NDP party and only one is from the interior.

The CDI was authorised by the Peace Accord to initiate a study on Indigenous
and Maroon land rights. Specifically, to examine the means by which
Article 10 of the Peace Accord, which deals with land rights, could be
implemented. This function was taken over by two sucessive commissions
installed by the present and previous governments - the Commission on State
Land and Indigenous Peoples and Maroon and the Redan Commission. Neither
commission has produced any results or recommendations and both are
effectively defunct.

The full text of article 10 provides that:

(1) The Government shall endeavour that legal mechanisms be created, under
which citizens who live and reside in a tribal setting will be able to
secure a real title to land in their respective living areas;
(2) The demarcation and size of the respective living areas, referred to in
the first paragraph, shall be determined on the basis of a study carried out
with respect thereto by the Council for the Development of the Interior;
(3) The traditional authorities of the citizens living in tribes or a body
appointed thereto, will indicate a procedure on the basis of which
individual members of a community can be considered for real title to a plot
of land referred to in paragraph 2;
(4) Around the area mentioned in paragraph 2, the Government will establish
an economic zone where the communities and citizens living in tribes can
perform economic activities, including forestry, small scale mining, hunting
and fishing.

This article has never been implemented and the government maintains that it
has no legal obligations derived from the Peace Accord. Even if it were to
be implemented, Indigenous peoples and Maroons have registered serious
objections to the language concerning individual titles and the fact that
this article denies rights to Indigenous and Maroon individuals not residing
in their communities of origin. They also point out that economic zones
around individual villages will create artificial islands of Indigenous and
Maroon lands rather than recognizing their rights to their full territories.

During the recent meeting between the government and the traditional
authorities, the government mentioned land rights only once and this came
after two days of repetitive speeches concerning the necessity of mining and
logging for the development of the country. These speeches invariably
implied that objections to these activities by Indigenous peoples and
Maroons would result in a termination a government health and education
services, whereas acquiescence would bring an increase in government
services. The statement concerning land rights came from the Minister of
Natural Resources. He said that "the land rights problem that has been
discussed for many years and which has received international attention,
must be solved in cooperation with the traditional authorities of the
interior." He went on to say that "the manner in which concessions are
given out will proceed in the interests of the total development of the

The President concluded the meeting by stating that the government would
neither work with nor recognize Indigenous and Maroon NGOs and would only
work with the traditional authorities of the interior. The reasons for this
are simple: the government is able to manipulate and coerce individual
community leaders, something that it is not able to do with most Indigenous
NGOs, who have been outspoken about land rights.

The present government gained most of the votes in the interior in the last
election by promising that land rights would be recognized and concessions
would not be granted in Indigenous and Maroon territories. However, exactly
what the government will do about land rights has yet to be officially
stated. Various communities have reported, as recently as a month ago, that
they have been threatened by government officials not to speak about land
rights anymore or their basic services will be cut off. When pressed on the
subject, government officials have stated that the government's solution to
the problem is to issue each individual a land title to the land on which
their house stands. Referring to subsistence and other rights, a member of
a Trio community was prompted to reply that "Tapirs don't stay in the

An analysis of Surinamese law relating to land ownership and Indigenous
rights done by the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname
(VIDS) indicates that new legislation and a reform of existing legislation
is required if Indigenous and Maroon rights are to be effectively
guaranteed. Almost all land in the interior, is presently classified as
state land. The Government also claims all sub-surface and surface
resources (Const. 1987, art. 41). Indigenous peoples and Maroons are
regarded by the Government as permissive occupiers of state land, without
effective rights and title thereto.

The primary legislation in Suriname concerning state land, provides that
Indigenous and Maroon customary law rights to their villages and
agricultural plots shall be respected, "unless there is a conflict with the
general interest." (Decree L-1, 1982, Basic Principles on Land Policy, art.
4.1) "General interest is also to be understood as the execution of any
project within the framework of an approved development plan." (Decree L-1,
1982, art. 4.2) Consequently, mining, logging and other activities
classified as being in the general interest (which they are) are exempted
from the requirement that Indigenous and Maroon customary law rights be

Indigenous and Maroon rights are not considered to be property rights as
understood in the Civil Code, but merely as narrowly defined customary law
rights. Customary law rights in Surinamese law are the lowest level of
legal authority and will be superseded by Statute, Constitutional law,
Presidential and Ministerial Council Decrees (staatsbesluiten) and
Resolutions (resoluties), and Ministerial Regulations (beschikking). These
higher sources of law, contradict and conflict with customary law as
relevant to Indigenous peoples, thereby rendering these minimal protections
null and void. Furthermore, customary law rights only apply to Indigenous
and Maroon villages and agricultural plots and do not account for other
lands occupied and used for hunting, fishing and other subsistence
activities. As noted above, these rights do not apply when they conflict
with development or other projects and plans classified as in the general or
public interest. As Indigenous occupation and use are not classified as
property in Surinamese law, Constitutional guarantees related to the right
to property also do not apply.

Under Surinamese legislation (L-Decrees of 1982), every Surinamese citizen
and other legal persons are entitled to request a piece of unencumbered
state land from the government, specifically the Ministry of Natural
Resources. The same also applies to Indigenous and Maroon individuals. In
theory the procedure is simple: a request accompanied by a map of the
requested area issued by a registered surveyor is submitted to the State
Lands Office. The request must state the use or uses to which the land will
be put. This office then verifies that the parcel requested is not held by
others and reviews the proposed uses of the land to ensure consistency with
government policy. If no valid reason for rejecting the application is
found, a land lease title (grondhuur) is issued and registered in the name
of the applicant. Land Lease is presently the only form of land title that
may be obtained in Suriname. These are the same titles that would be
granted under the Peace Accord, should the government decide to implement it.

The government of Suriname has stated on more than one occasion that
Indigenous and Maroon individuals in Suriname can apply for land titles in
the same way as any other Surinamese citizen, and, therefore, additional
action to address Indigenous and Maroon land tenure issues is not required.
However, titles issued under this procedure: are individual titles only; are
leases of state land for renewable 20 year periods, that can be withdrawn at
the discretion of the government and remain subject to logging, mining and
other activities deemed in the public interest; are subject to requirements
and restrictions concerning use, particularly government definitions of
appropriate use of land such as permanent agriculture, that is unsuited to
the poor soils of the rainforest and contrary to Indigenous agricultural
methods and cultural practices, and; would not incorporate areas occupied
and used by Indigenous communities for hunting, fishing or other subsistence

This land titling procedure, therefore, does not permit: collective
ownership of land and resources; provides no protection against logging,
mining or other activities that may detract from the peaceful use and
enjoyment thereof; most likely will have restrictions concerning its use
that are incompatible with Indigenous subsistence rights and cultural
practices, and; may be withdrawn at the discretion of the government for
failure to comply with conditions of issuance.

As concluded by the VIDS, if Indigenous rights, particularly as related to
lands, territory and resources, are to be recognized in Suriname, new
legislation will have to be adopted that is consistent with Suriname's
obligations under international human rights instruments. This new
legislation would also need to detail rights and procedures by which
Indigenous peoples can participate fully in, if not consent to, decisions
concerning land use and management. Rights to cultural integrity, including
an explicit disavowal of forcible assimilation, would also need to be
included. Rights to maintain, use and strengthen Indigenous institutions of
governance, in particular rights to self-determination, autonomy and
self-government, must also be accounted for. As an additional measure of
protection, the rights of Indigenous peoples and Maroons to, inter alia, own
their ancestral territories, to autonomy and self-government and to cultural
integrity must also be entrenched in the Constitution.

As Surinamese law does not provide adequate remedies to protect Indigenous
and Maroon rights to their ancestral territories, and as the government is
unwilling to appropriately address the subject politically, Indigenous
peoples and Maroons are forced to seek redress and support on the
international level. The environmental integrity of their territories is
also threatened by uncontrolled and irresponsible resource extraction and
other development schemes, the benefits of which are enjoyed by only a few
well connected individuals. The situation of Indigenous peoples and Maroons
in Suriname requires urgent international attention if they are to survive
and prosper as distinct peoples. The same can also be said for Suriname's
rainforests, which cover about 80 percent of the country.

For more information, please contact:

Forest Peoples Programme
1c, Fosseway Business Centre
Stratford Road
Moreton-in-Marsh, GL56 9NQ
United Kingdom
Tel. 44. 1608. 652. 893.
Fax. 44. 1608. 652. 878
Email :

Forest Peoples Programme / World Rainforest Movement UK Office
1C Fosseway Business Centre, Stratford Road, Moreton-in-Marsh, GL56 9NQ, England
Tel: 44 1608 652745 Fax: 44 1608 652878,

World Rainforest Movement International Secretariat:
Casilla de Correo 1539, Montevideo, Uruguay
Tel: 598 2 496192 Fax: 598 2 419222

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