Suriname: Saramaka win case in human rights court

The Saramaka are one of six Maroon peoples in the Republic of Suriname. Their ancestors were brought to Suriname in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as slaves to work in Suriname's sugar, timber, and coffee plantations.

The Saramaka live in a 9,000 square kilometre area of central Suriname. In the 1960s, a hydroelectric dam was built on their traditional land, devastating almost half of it. From the mid 1990s the government granted, without consultation or with the community’s permission, large timber and mining concessions to foreign multinationals (Indonesian, Malaysian and others), and military-backed Chinese logging companies to set up speculation sites in traditional Saramaka territory. When loggers allegedly built roads through the Saramaka territory which destroyed subsistence farms, the Saramaka arranged a community meeting to determine what they could do to protect their land. This led to the establishment of the Association of Saramaka Authorities, an organization representing an estimated 30,000 Saramaka living in 63 villages. The organization used GPS technology to document their traditional territory and the loggers' activities, despite threats that any attempt to halt logging work would result in imprisonment.

In 2000, the Saramaka filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against logging activities. The Commission requested that the Suriname government stop all development projects on the Saramaka traditional land until it had concluded its investigation into the Saramaka allegations. Despite this, it was reported that the government permitted the export of tropical hardwoods, with an estimated value of at least US$11 million.   

As a result the Commission referred the Saramaka case to the legally binding Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The allegations stated that Suriname had failed to recognize the Saramaka's territorial rights, which violated national law.

Dr Robert Goodland, a former chief environment advisor to the World Bank, in his court testimony, highlighted the grave impact the development activities had had on Saramaka:  “The Saramaka are a unique people and culture that are not found anywhere else in the world...if they lose more territory, it would be no exaggeration to say that they will face a substantial risk of irreparable harm to their physical and cultural integrity and survival".

In November 2007, the IACHR ruled  in favour of the Saramaka and said that Suriname had "violated, to the detriment of the members of the Saramaka people, the right to property." The Saramaka were granted collective rights to their ancestral lands including rights to determine how natural resources within their territory are exploited. The Suriname government was ordered to: amend logging concessions to preserve the Saramaka's survival; grant the Saramaka free informed, and prior consent for any future development or investment projects that may relate to their territory; ensure that future projects provide sufficient environmental and social impact assessments and to adequately share any benefits deriving from related projects with the Saramaka.

In addition, the Suriname government was ordered to compensate the Saramaka for damages caused by earlier projects and the compensation was to be paid into a special development fund to be managed by the Saramaka. This was a landmark decision because the ruling stated that a (non indigenous) minority group has legal rights to the natural resources within its traditional territory.  

Wanze Eduards, one of the two Saramaka who led this campaign together with S. Hugo Jabini, when receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize said: "The forest means everything to the Saramaka. From it we get our food, our medicines, our homes, everything for life...we live in the forest and with the forest." Since the ruling acted as a guarantee that the Saramaka could remain on their land, they have begun developing ecotourism and expanding the protected areas around their territory.

In 2011 the IACHR adopted a compliance order. The Court found that Suriname had not complied fully with the orders of the ruling in 2007, and that in some respects it is "in direct contravention of the Court's decision and, accordingly, of the State's international treaty obligations". The Court decided to hold a hearing on the case in 2012. 

Photo by Ahron de Leeuw shows Santigron village in Suriname.

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Date: 27/06/2012




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Land Rights

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