• Indigenous peoples in Suriname

    Indigenous peoples in Suriname

The Indigenous World 2021: Suriname

The Indigenous Peoples of Suriname number approximately 20,344 people, or 3.8% of the total population of 541,638[1] (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.

As in many other countries around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has painfully exposed the disproportionately vulnerable and marginal or even discriminatory position that Indigenous Peoples in Suriname find themselves in. After the first cases of COVID-19 in Suriname were confirmed in mid-March 2020, and especially after the first large wave in May/June, many Indigenous villages went into self-isolation and blockaded entry roads[2] and even local airstrips.[3] However, after the general elections, which were held on 25 May 2020, the number of cases surged throughout the country. Villages in border areas were particularly affected as there was a great deal of movement across the borders from the heavily-affected neighbouring countries of Brazil and French Guiana with people coming to vote. There was strong stigmatisation of Indigenous and Maroon villages at that time, which were indicated as a “source of the virus” threatening the rest of the country. In one case, a village chief was even briefly detained by the police for “housing a potentially infected person from French Guiana”.[4] The national measures against the spread of the virus also had a strong impact on the villages, many of which were temporarily deprived of food and other basic commodities due to a lack of transportation. Tourism was hit hard and agricultural and other common saleable products from the villages could no longer be taken to market.

The provision of suitable, understandable information was another major issue for Indigenous and Maroon villages, many of which do not receive mainstream communication media such as television and radio. The national traditional Indigenous authority structure, VIDS (Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname), made efforts to provide information in Indigenous languages and Sranantongo[5] and also visual materials,[6] and furthermore established a national WhatsApp group for faster communication.

Most concerning was the fact that the number of Indigenous persons dying due to COVID-19 was disproportionately high, accounting for approximately 15% of the deaths, although the Indigenous population is estimated at only 4% of the national population. The national authorities were not aware of these statistics but they were pointed out by VIDS. The authorities gave no explanation despite saying they would investigate this further. Participation in policymaking around COVID-19 measures was (and remains) minimal despite VIDS sending various letters and requests for closer involvement to the national, United Nations and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) authorities. VIDS submitted information on the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples in Suriname to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples[7] and also published a report on the participation of Indigenous traditional authorities in policymaking during the COVID-19 outbreak in Suriname.[8]

Legislative developments

After a lengthy (more than one-year) process with many discussions and consultations, a draft law on the Collective Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Suriname was developed by a government-installed “Management Team” and its technical commissions. The draft law was tabled in the National Assembly (Parliament) by a group of parliamentarians but never actually got discussed due to the national general elections held in May 2020. The elections brought the former opposition parties to power, marking a radical change in the political landscape. In November 2020, the new government under President Chandrikapersad Santokhi installed a new presidential commission to provide advice to the government on the – still unrecognised – rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Suriname. Unlike the previous commission, which consisted of government and traditional authority representatives, this new commission comprises only government-proposed experts. It is expected, however, that the existing draft will be used as the basis for further discussions. Both the president and the new vice-president, Ronnie Brunswijk, who is from the N’Dyuka tribal Maroon people, have stated that they want “to have the land rights issue settled within a year”.

The 2015 Kaliña & Lokono judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,[9] effective 28 January 2016, remains unimplemented. In that judgment, the Court ordered Suriname, among other things, to legally recognise the collective property of the Kaliña and Lokono peoples as regards their traditional lands and resources, and their legal personality before the law in Suriname. In addition, the judgment also affirms the rights of the Kaliña and Lokono over the protected areas that were established in their territories and orders a process of restitution of or compensation for those lands. The Court also decided similarly on third-party titles to Indigenous lands that have been issued without their consent. The state of Suriname is further required to rehabilitate the area affected by bauxite mining in the Wane Kreek Nature Reserve. Because of the repeated nature of Suriname’s violations of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ rights (see also the Saramaka[10] and relevant parts of the Moiwana[11] cases), the Court ordered similar measures for all Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Suriname in this judgment.

In spite of this judgment, the state has continued to issue land and/or resource exploitation titles within Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ territories, leading to conflicts with affected villages,[12] which most often only become aware of these concessions and land titles once the “owners” start undertaking activities such as forest clearing. Well-known names are often given as the holders of these titles.

One notable development in 2020, also shortly before the general elections of May 2020, was the speedy approval of the Framework Law on the Environment, which had been under preparation for over 18 years and even tabled for discussion in the National Assembly but always returned to the backburner until March 2020. The law largely establishes the creation of a National Environment Authority tasked with, among other things, designing and implementing national environment policies. Being a framework law, it will require a great deal of additional legislation to become effective. The new government has established a committee to revise the law “on technical grounds”.[13] It was prepared without significant Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ participation and does not recognise their collective rights, although FPIC is superficially mentioned in the definitions of terms.

Other developments

The national general elections held on 25 May 2020 marked a 180 degree turn in the political landscape of Suriname, with the ruling NDP party of then-president Desiré Bouterse winning only 16 of the 51 seats in Parliament, down from 26. The former opposition parties VHP, ABOP, NPS and PL secured a resounding majority of 33 seats in all (VHP having the largest share, 20 seats, followed by ABOP with eight) and quickly formed a new four-party coalition government, headed by President Chandrikapersad Santokhi of the VHP and Vice-President Ronnie Brunswijk of ABOP. The new government has expressed its desire for “strong ties” with the interior although structural engagement is yet to materialise. The political parties that make up the current government have been in power before, however, and have never previously given much priority to the rights and livelihoods of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

The economy of Suriname, already weak after years of low natural resource prices, low domestic production and high foreign debts, sank even further in 2020 after the COVID-19 crisis hit. Major credit rating institutes ranked the country as “in default” in July 2020,[14] although this was slightly upgraded some months later after talks of debt restructuring by the new government and expectations of renewed International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance. It is expected that the new government’s recently published Crisis and Recovery Plan will be implemented in 2021 with assistance from the IMF. This plan does not pay much attention to the interior other than in general statements on low-income groups, even though it is an historic given that Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Suriname are hardest hit by austerity and economic restructuring measures. Extractive industries and infrastructure, with accompanying foreign investments, are very high on the agenda of the new government. Recent crude oil finds off the coast of Suriname are giving the country high hopes, even though it also says it will continue to be “the greenest country” in the world with its record 93% forest cover.


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 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


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”, 3.8%) 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, for example: VIDS. 2020. “Stop.” Facebook, 17 April 2020. https://www.facebook.com/VIDSSuriname/photos/pb.525313404329029.-2207520000../1280872708773091/?type=3&theater; Waterkant. “Inheemse dorpen gezamenlijk in stijd tegen Covid-19.” 8 June 2020. https://www.waterkant.net/suriname/2020/06/08/inheemse-dorpen-gezamenlijk-in-strijd-tegen-covid-19/; Suriname Nieuws. “Inheemse dorpen treffen COVID-19-maatregelen.” 3 June 2020. https://www.srnieuws.com/suriname/290424/inheemse-dorpen-treffen-covid-19-maatregelen/; SNC. “Inheemse dorpen Para gaan wegbarricade niet verwijderen.” 20 June 2020. https://surinamenieuwscentrale.com/content/inheemse-dorpen-para-gaan-wegbarricade-niet-verwijderen; VIDS. “Maatregelen van inheemse dorpen tegen COVID-19.” 26 March 2020. https://vids.sr/maatregelen-van-inheemse-dorpen-tegen-covid-19/

[3] Waterkant. “Inheemsen barricaderen vliegveld na landing vliegtuig uit Paramaribo.” 30 March 2020. https://www.waterkant.net/suriname/2020/03/30/inheemsen-barricaderen-vliegveld-na-landing-vliegtuig-uit-paramaribo/

[4] Politie Suriname. “Kapitein Erowarte afgezonderd in O’ter cel vanwege besmettingsgevaar.” 17 April 2020. https://www.politie.sr/kapitein-erowarte-afgezonderd-in-oter-cel-vanwege-besmettingsgevaar/

[5] VIDS. 2020. “Covid Prakseri Suriname onder Lockdown.” Facebook, 7 June 2020. https://www.facebook.com/VIDSSuriname/photos/pb.525313404329029.-2207520000../1319969171530111/?type=3&theater

[6] Star Nieuws. “VIDS helpt mee met strijd tegen Covid-19.” 23 January 2021. https://www.starnieuws.com/index.php/welcome/index/nieuwsitem/62667

[7] VIDS. “Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples in Suriname.” 19 June 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/IPeoples/SR/COVID-19/IndigenousCSOs/SURINAME%20%20-%20VIDS%20submission.docx

[8] VIDS: Vereniging van Inheemse Dorpshoofden in Suriname. 2021. www.vids.sr

[9] Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “Case of the Kaliña and Lokono Peoples v. Suriname.” 25 November 2015. http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_309_ing.pdf

[10] Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “Case of the Saramaka People v. Suriname.” 28 November 2007. http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_172_ing.pdf

[11] Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “Case of the Moiwana Community v. Suriname.” 15 June 2005. http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_124_ing.pdf

[12] Shoeket. “Vids strijdt tegen ‘massale’ gronduitgifte.” 18 October 2018. https://www.shoeket.com/nieuwsbericht/9731/

[13] Star Nieuws. “VIDS helpt mee met strijd tegen Covid-19.” 23 January 2021. https://www.starnieuws.com/index.php/welcome/index/nieuwsitem/62667

[14] Baria, Steven. “S&P, Fitch downgrade Suriname, reflecting default event.” S&P Global Market Intelligence, 13 July 2020. https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news-headlines/s-p-fitch-downgrade-suriname-reflecting-default-event-59414975



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