News / 28 november 2017

Ten years after ground-breaking ruling the Saramaka are still fighting for their rights

On 28 November 2007, the Saramaka people won a ground-breaking court case against Suriname at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The Court ruling included the provision that Suriname could no longer grant concessions on tribal territory without the permission of the inhabitants. Ten years later, little has come of implementing this ruling in practice.

The Saramaka are Maroons, descendants of slaves who freed themselves in the seventeenth century and settled in the forests of Suriname. Since the 1960s, they have been affected by the economic activities of the Surinamese government, including the building of a dam in 1963 that left half their territory under water. When, in the 1990s, the Saramaka repeatedly found themselves in conflict with logging companies active in their territory, leaders Hugo Jabini and Wanze Eduards took their grievances to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on behalf of the Association of Saramaka Authorities (ASA).

In a ground-breaking ruling, the Court decided that Suriname had violated the property rights of the Saramaka and other tribal people by granting concessions on tribal territory. It ordered the Surinamese government to stop granting the concessions immediately and to compensate for the damage caused. Now, ten years later, the government has done very little to implement the IACHR's ruling. Both ENDS examines the current status of the main components of the ruling:

  • Publishing the ruling
    The Surinamese government must translate the IACHR's ruling into local languages and publish it in local media.
    Status: completed. The ruling was published in Dutch in daily newspaper De Ware Tijd, and was broadcast in the Saramaccan language on local radio stations in Paramaribo and along the Tapanahoni and Upper Suriname rivers.
  • Compensation
    The Surinamese state must pay compensation to a specially set up Saramaka Development Fund.
    Status: completed. Suriname has paid an amount equal to US$ 675,000 into the fund, with which the Saramaka have financed a few small projects, including a bilingual mathematics teaching method, a drinking water project, building an outpatients' clinic and a community centre, and equipping a boarding school for students in Atjoni.
  • Saramaka as a legal person
    Suriname must recognise the Saramaka people as a legal person.
    Status: not implemented.
  • Titles of property rights for the Saramaka and other groups
    Suriname must map out the traditional territories of all tribal groups (indigenous and Maroons) and issue them with titles of property.
    Status: at the state's expense, researchers at the NARENA/CELOS institute have drawn a draft map of the Saramaka's tribal territory and submitted it to the Ministry of Regional Development. The map has, however, never been approved and there is no prospect of property titles being issued. The ministry is frustrating and delaying the process.
  • Restoring original situation
    Where possible, the government must take action to cease activities and restore damage caused in tribal areas.
    Status: no action taken at all in this respect.
  • Benefit-sharing
    Where it is not possible to restore the original situation, the local population must share in the benefits of the economic activities in their territories.
    Status: the tribal peoples do not share in the benefits of the activities.
  • Stop issue of concessions
    The Surinamese government may no longer issue concessions that violate tribal property rights.
    Status: the Surinamese government continues to issue concessions in tribal areas.
  • Free, prior and informed consent
    In the case of new economic activities in tribal areas, the Surinamese government must apply the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). This means that local communities must have a say in projects implemented in their territories, without being put under pressure (free), before the project starts (prior) and on the basis of correct information (informed). Moreover, social and environmental impact assessments (SIA and EIA) have to be carried out for new projects.
    Status: FPIC is not being applied, and SIAs and EIAs are not carried out. There is not even environmental legislation that projects have to comply with.

Clearly, until now, the Surinamese government has been very negligent in implementing the ruling and continues to violate the rights of its indigenous and Maroon peoples on a large scale. Nevertheless, the ruling has increased awareness of the rights of tribal peoples and their problems in Suriname. The issue is on the agenda and has been incorporated in the programmes of political parties. In addition, indigenous groups and Maroons have joined forces, realising that they face the same problems and that the ruling applies to both groups.

The Saramaka and the other groups continue to fight for their rights. Not only in Suriname itself, but also internationally. In 2015, the IACHR ruled in another case, brought by the Kaliña and Lokono peoples against the Surinamese state, in favour of the indigenous groups. A case on the land rights of the Maho people is ongoing.

The Saramaka are also calling on international institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank to withdraw their financial support for illegal projects in tribal areas. In this way, the Saramaka may be able to stop a number of projects, such as dams, that are threatening them. Both ENDS supports Hugo Jabini and the ASA in this mission.

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