• Indigenous peoples in Suriname

    Indigenous peoples in Suriname

Indigenous World 2020: Suriname

The Indigenous Peoples of Suriname number approximately 20,344 people, or 3.8% of the total population of 541,6381 (census 2012). 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 Akoerio, Warao, Apalai, Wai-Wai, Okomoyana, Mawayana, Katuena, Tunayana, Pireuyana, Sikiiyana, Alamayana, Maraso, Awayakule, Sirewu, Upuruy, Sarayana, Kasjoeyana, Murumuruyo, Kukuyana, Piyanakoto 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 recognise Indigenous or Tribal Peoples, and Suriname has no legislation governing Indigenous and Tribal 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 in 2007.

Legislative developments

2019 saw, for the first time ever, a formal, participatory albeit still government-led process for developing legislation on the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, something that is still absent from Surinamese law. In response to increasing pressure from Indigenous Peoples in 2016, working groups consisting of government and Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ representatives developed a “Roadmap towards the Legal  Recognition of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Rights” over the course of 2017. The government’s formal approval of the Roadmap took almost a year and it was not until December 2018 that a Management Team was finally established to oversee the Roadmap’s implementation, headed up by the director of the Ministry of Regional Development. Three technical commissions were also simultaneously established: one to develop draft legislation, one on demarcation and one on awareness raising, respectively, all in accordance with the Roadmap. The Management Team and the three commissions consist primarily of representatives of relevant government departments, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ traditional authorities, and other relevant stakeholders such as notaries and land surveyors.

The Commission for Legislation delivered a draft Law on the Collective Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Suriname as well as a proposal for revision of the Constitution of Suriname in order to recognise Indigenous and Tribal Peoples on 1 October 2019.2 Apart from a presentation of the drafts to the Council of Ministers, no formal steps have since been taken to table the drafts in the National Assembly (Parliament) for discussion and eventual approval.

The Commission for Demarcation focused on collecting existing demarcation maps. Many Indigenous and tribal territories have already been demarcated by the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples themselves, and it was decided to use these maps instead of undertaking new demarcation processes. Those that are demarcated will be included for immediate legal recognition in the newly developed draft law but those that are not will need to be recognised through a yet-to-be defined process. Another issue that the Demarcation commission is still dealing with relates to cases where there are overlaps between territories that have been traditionally used by different communities. In most cases, the boundaries between territories (mostly natural boundaries such as creeks) are well-known to the respective peoples or communities. Over the latter part of 2019, a number of meetings between these “parties” were therefore held, organised by the Roadmap’s Management Team, to formalise the traditional boundaries via a written and signed agreement. A number of such cases still need to be finalised.

Public awareness of the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, the third component under the Roadmap, has been slow to get up to speed. Although there were various news items released on the process, little was done to popularise the actual concepts and an understanding of the nature of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ collective rights. Many misconceptions such as “they want a State in a State”, “how can they get so much land” and “then Suriname cannot access its natural resources anymore” are common and need clarifying. A professional communications agency was contracted only late in 2019 and is to launch an awareness campaign in early 2020.

Although the drafting of new legislation for recognition of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ rights could fulfil part of the Kaliña and Lokono judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the state of Suriname (2015),3 no other progress has been made in this regard. The Court ordered Suriname, among other things, to legally recognise the Kaliña and Lokono peoples’ collective ownership of their traditional lands and resources, as well as their legal status before the law in Suriname. In addition, the judgment also affirmed the rights of the Kaliña and Lokono over the protected areas that were established on their territories and ordered a process for restitution of 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. The state of Suriname is also required to rehabilitate the area affected by bauxite mining in Wane Kreek Nature Reserve. Because of the repeated nature of Suriname’s violations of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ rights (see also the Saramaka case4 and relevant parts of the Moiwana5 case), the Court ordered similar measures for all Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Suriname in this judgment.

Two villages in Para district, Matta and Cabendadorp, were shocked to discover that hundreds of hectares of their communal land had been sold to individuals, one a rich businessman and the other a Chinese investor. In the case of Matta, it turned out that the land title had already been handed over by the government in 2015, shortly before the elections of that year, and sold on further by a bank when a mortgage on that land could not be repaid. Since there is no legislation on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ rights to land, all land in which there is no title yet vested is considered state-owned land, and the state has the power to sell it or allocate it via long-term lease to individuals or companies. Many communities are confronted with situations whereby strangers or companies have received titles to land within their ancestral territories. Both villages protested but do not have access to legal recourse since Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ rights are not legally recognised and the land titles were issued in accordance with existing mainstream legislation. A third village in Para, Powakka, was similarly confronted with the imminent renewal of a sand mining concession which they had long protested.6 Although the Minister of Natural Resources promised to withdraw the mining concession, he did not show up in the village after making the promise and no proof of the withdrawal was given.

In spite of repeated protests by VIDS, the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname, against government intervention in the succession processes of traditional village leaders, the Ministry of Regional Development intervened at least twice last year to have new village leaders (chiefs) elected, namely in the villages of Bigi Poika7 and Redi Doti. VIDS sees this as part of the government’s efforts to gain political influence, especially given the upcoming general elections in May 2020, and thus a violation of the right to self-determination.

Other developments

Tribal Maroon villages along the Marowijne border river between Suriname and French Guyana were repeatedly confronted by the aggressive actions of the French gendarmerie operating from French Guyana in 2019. The gendarmerie stormed the islands and set fire to heavy equipment used for gold mining, which is practised extensively, both legally and illegally, along the tributaries of the Marowijne River. The French police argue that half of the border river, including the islands, belongs to France (French Guyana) and that they have the right to move against illegal gold mining and the resulting mercury pollution and erosion. The border dispute itself and the police actions were diplomatically challenged by the Surinamese government but no solution has yet been forthcoming, despite various border negotiations.

Notwithstanding the protests of the villages of Hollandse Kamp and Witsanti against a land title given to the international airport of Suriname for an extension of the Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport, an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) was undertaken and approved by the government’s environment agency, NIMOS. This approval means that construction, which will cross the ancestral territories of these two villages, can now go ahead. As with the abovementioned cases, no domestic legal action can be taken against such developments given the absence of legislation.

VIDS has intensified its work on capacity building of Indigenous village leaders, among other things in relation to undertaking village research into human rights’ indicators from an Indigenous perspective, and project writing. This work has been done as part of the global “Indigenous Navigator” project, which aims to systematically monitor the level of recognition and implementation of IPs’ rights and their participation in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).8 Various IPs’ rights awareness sessions were also held, including talks on healthy lifestyles and Indigenous food, and alliances made with, among others, the National Bureau of Statistics, the Gender Bureau and the University of Suriname. Another project, Strengthening the Capacity of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon (SCIOA),9 aims to strengthen the institutional and financial management capacities of Indigenous organizations. This commenced in late 2019 and will be further implemented in 2020.

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. “Indiening Wetsontwerpen Grondenrechten en Andere Rechten”. De Vereniging van Inheemse Dorpshoofden in Suriname (VIDS), 10 December 2010: http:// www.vids.sr/?p=852
  3. Case of The Kaliña and Lokono Peoples Suriname. 2015. Inter-American Court of Human Rights: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_309_ing.pdf
  4. Case of the Saramaka People Suriname. 2007. Inter-American Court of Human Rights: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_172_ing.pdf
  5. Case of the Moiwana Community Suriname. 2007. Inter-American Court of Human Rights: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_124_ing.pdf
  6. “Inheemsen ziedend over gronduitgifte bij Powaka”. DWT Online, 3 June 2019: http://dwtonline.com/laatste-nieuws/2019/06/03/inheemsen-ziedend-over- gronduitgifte-bij-powaka/
  7. “Voorbereidingen dorpsverkiezing Bigi Poika op schema”. StarNieuws, 21 December 2018: https://www.starnieuws.com/index.php/welcome/index/ nieuwsitem/50421
  8. Learn more about the Indigenous Navigator at: http://nav.indigenousnavigator. com/index.php/en/ 
  9. Learn more about the Pact´s SCIOA project at: https://www.pactworld.org/ library/strengthening-capacity-indigenous-organizations-amazon

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 (Dr) in medical sciences and a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) plus a Bachelor of Law (LL.B.).


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand