• Indigenous peoples in Suriname

    Indigenous peoples in Suriname

Indigenous World 2019: Suriname


The indigenous peoples of Suriname number approximately 20,344 people, or 3.8% of the total population of 541,638 (census 2012).1 The four most numerous indigenous peoples are the Kaliña (Carib), Lokono (Arawak), Trio (Tirio, Tareno) and Wayana. In addition, there are small settlements of other Amazonian indigenous peoples in the south of Suriname, including the Akurio, Apalai, Wai-Wai, Okomoyana, Mawayana, Katuena/Tunayana, Pireuyana,  Sikiiyana,  Alamayana,  Maraso, Sirewu and Sakëta.

The Kaliña and Lokono live mainly in the northern part of the country and are sometimes referred to as “lowland” indigenous peoples, whereas the Trio, Wayana and other Amazonian peoples live in the south and are referred to as “highland” peoples.

The legislative system of Suriname, based on colonial legislation, does not recognize indigenous or tribal peoples, and Suriname has no legislation governing indigenous peoples’ land or other rights. This forms a major threat to the survival and well-being of indigenous and tribal peoples, particularly given the strong focus that is being placed on Suriname’s many natural resources (including oil, bauxite, gold, water, forests and biodiversity). Suriname is one of the few countries in South America that has not ratified ILO Convention 169. It did vote in favour of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.

Kaliña and Lokono judgment and land rights

Implementation of the judgment by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), in the Kaliña and Lokono Peoples v. Suriname case2, has not progressed, other than the translation into Dutch and Sranantongo of the summary of the judgment. The important legislative and policy measures that were ordered, as well as a 1 million USD Development Fund to be established, have still not been complied with by Suriname. The last implementation deadline was due on 28 January 2019, three years after the effective date of the judgment. The Kaliña and Lokono peoples of the lower Marowijne region, organized in the organization Kaliña and Lokono in Marowijne (KLIM) and the national Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname (Vereniging van Inheemse Dorpshoofden in Suriname, VIDS) have announced that they will evaluate the possibility to undertake domestic legal actions to demand compliance with the Court’s orders.

The Court ordered Suriname to, among other things, legally recognize the collective property of the Kaliña and Lokono peoples to their traditional lands and resources, and their legal personality before the law. In addition, the judgment also affirms the rights of the Kaliña and Lokono over the protected areas that were established in their territories and ordered a process for restitution or compensation for those lands. The Court decided in similar terms on third-party titles over indigenous lands that have been given out without their consent. Suriname is also held to rehabilitate the area affected by bauxite mining in the Wane Kreek Nature Reserve. Because of the repetitious nature of Suriname’s violations of indigenous and tribal peoples’ rights (see also the Saramaka3 and relevant parts of the Moiwana4 cases), the Court ordered similar measures for all indigenous and tribal peoples of Suriname in this judgment.

In response to street manifestations organized by the VIDS, the government had established a Presidential Commission on Land Rights which worked on a “Roadmap” that includes a workplan towards the legal recognition of indigenous and tribal peoples’ land and other rights. The President of Suriname, after various delays, in June 2018 instructed the Minister of Regional Development to implement the Roadmap, which initially had an estimated duration of 12 months. Only in December 2018 the relevant commissions were installed, and the time for delivering the expected results is now very limited.

The Roadmap was developed jointly by government and representatives of the indigenous and tribal peoples’ traditional authorities, who are also represented jointly in the various commissions and the umbrella Management Team. The three main commissions that have been established will work respectively on draft laws on collective rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, demarcation of traditional territories and broad awareness among the general Surinamese society. The main results will be legal proposals to be submitted to the National Assembly (parliament) of Suriname in September 2019. The National Assembly, however, retains its prerogative to reject or make amendments to the proposals delivered by the Roadmap process, and various opinions have been expressed that this is just another “carrot process” to keep indigenous and tribal peoples from revolting. The VIDS has made clear that while this is an encouraging development in which they fully participate, this roadmap process alone does not adequately guarantee the full implementation of the Kaliña and Lokono judgment.

A contentious draft law for “protecting” indigenous and tribal peoples’ lands and territories, approved by the National Assembly in December 2017, has not been signed into law by the President of Suriname, purportedly because of strong objections by the VIDS and other indigenous and tribal peoples’ organizations. The VIDS had indeed expressed fundamental reservations against the law, which is an amendment to a core Domain Land Law of 1982. This law considers all land over which no title can be proven, to be state domain (property), including all indigenous and tribal peoples’ lands and territories, none of which hold written titles. The recent amendment intends to “protect” their traditional lands by prohibiting the state to give any (mining or other) concession right or land title in areas that are within a radius of five kilometre from indigenous and tribal peoples’ villages, without the community’s consent. However, pre-existing third-party rights are upheld, and the explanatory note to the amendment reiterates that all land remains domain land over which the state has exclusive decisive authority.

Indigenous and tribal peoples’ organizations have expressed fundamental concerns about the amendment, which was hastily approved without their involvement or comments, saying that this amendment uses an arbitrary and unrealistic five kilometre radius; that the village-based “protection” does not correspond to indigenous and tribal peoples’ concepts of territories; and that it effectively confines their territories to restricted reservations around which everything is now expressly allowed. Some have expressed that the draft law has not been endorsed yet in order to provide an opportunity to investors to get concession rights before the law enters into force.

A proposal, spearheaded by Conservation International Suriname, for replacing the very old (1954) Nature Protection Law, has also been stalled for some time already, after having been submitted to the National Assembly for consideration. The reason for that is said to be the wish of the lawmakers to look at such a proposal within a broader scope, namely the wider environmental legislation and policy of Suriname. An environment framework law has been developed over ten years ago but has also not been substantially considered yet.

The issue of the planned expansion of the Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport which would occur within the traditional territory of at least two indigenous villages namely Witsanti and Hollandse Kamp, is getting into another phase. An environmental and social assessment (ESIA) has been undertaken but aforementioned villages criticized the report, saying that it does not properly address their rights to their lands and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Talks between the villages and the consultants undertaking the ESIA are currently ongoing. The expansion is to be financed and implemented by investors from China.5

Other developments

The World Bank has embarked on the implementation of its renewed Country Strategy for Suriname, with the announcement of an intended 25 million dollar loan for support to private sector development, in particular extractive industries and agrobusiness.6 The project triggers various World Bank safeguard policies, including Operational Policy 4.10, and at the time of writing this article, a draft “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Planning Framework” was in the making, with only limited involvement of indigenous and tribal peoples’ representatives.

An ex-chairperson of the board of the VIDS in a surprise statement in August 2018, declared that he and some other chiefs had decided to withdraw from the VIDS. The reasons given were the lack of dissemination of information by the VIDS and its ideas on implementing the Kaliña and Lokono judgment of the IACHR which, according to the ex-chairperson, “do not sufficiently take into account the aspirations of other groups in Surinamese society”. This move was generally conceived as a political one, given the function of the ex-chairperson as board member of the ruling coalition political party and the VIDS’ determination to demand the full implementation of the Kaliña and Lokono judgment. Some of the village leaders that were mentioned to have withdrawn later announced that they had not been consulted beforehand and remain in the VIDS. The current chairperson of the VIDS has clarified that the VIDS is not a western individual membership organization but the national structure of the traditional authorities, and as long as village leaders are supported by their community they remain part of the traditional authority and will be considered part of the VIDS. A “mini-conference” held by the VIDS in January 2019 underlined this with a resolution on the indestructible unity among the indigenous peoples of Suriname.

The VIDS protested against other perceived efforts to undermine its traditional indigenous leadership position and right to self-determination. In at least two instances, government agencies interfered actively in changing the village leadership which, till now, has been an exclusive responsibility of the villages themselves with process support from the VIDS. Similar efforts had been noticed before, particularly prior to previous national elections (the next national elections are scheduled for May 2020). The Saamaka Maroon authorities protested strongly against government interference in their traditional authority system, when president Desiré Bouterse decided to appoint a person of his choice to become paramount chief of the Saamaka tribe.7 The decision who would be the next paramount chief had been long and deeply disputed for various years already, after the death of the former chief. According to the president, it had been chiefs of the tribe themselves who asked him to take a decision, which was disputed by others. The IACHR asked for clarification, in particular whether international standards on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples had been adhered to in this matter.8

Notes and references

  1. The population is highly ethnically and religiously diverse, consisting of Hindustani (27.4%), Maroons (“Bush negroes”, 21.7%), Creoles (16%), Javanese (14%), mixed (13%), Indigenous peoples (“Amerindians”, 8%) and Chinese (1.5%) (census 2012). At least 15 different languages are spoken on a daily basis in Suriname, but the only official language is Dutch, while the lingua franca used in less formal conversations is Sranan Tongo (Surinamese).
  2. See Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Case of The Kaliña And Lokono Peoples Suriname Judgment of 25 November 2015 at http://bit.ly/2EjbRDC
  3. See Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Case of the Saramaka People Suriname Judgment of 28 November 2007 at http://bit.ly/2EhUXVO
  4. See Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Case of the Moiwana Community Suriname Judgment of 15 June 2005 at http://bit.ly/2EsJbrZ
  5. See Starnieuws, “Ambassadeur Zhang focuste zich op projectuitvoering” at http://bit.ly/2EsJJOz ; See Starnieuws, “Lening US$ 205 miljoen nodig voor groei luchthaven” at http://bit.ly/2Ec8VbC
  6. See The World Bank, “Facilitating Private Investment and Sector Diversification (P166187)” at http://bit.ly/2Ehm7fx
  7. See com, “Verklaring Vereniging Saamaka Gezagsdragers” at http://bit.ly/2EjZWFt
  8. See DWTonline.com, “OAS stelt vragen over Aboikoni” at http://bit.ly/2EkRaqI

Max Ooft is Policy Officer at the Bureau of the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname (Vereniging van Inheemse Dorpshoofden in Suriname, VIDS). He holds a doctorandus (drs) in medical sciences and a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) plus a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.)



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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