President of Suriname shuts down land rights conference following clear demands from indigenous and tribal peoples

Date of publication: 
6 December 2011

Indigenous and tribal peoples of Suriname still open to dialogue
A conference organised by the Government of Suriname on 21 and 22 October 2011, which was meant to clarify positions and proposals on land rights and build mutual understanding between the Government and indigenous and tribal (maroon) peoples, ended in a very abrupt manner. The Government even called it “a disaster” on 23 October 2011. Surprised by the massive solidarity and collaboration between the indigenous and tribal peoples of Suriname, and in a move that showed great disrespect to traditional leaders who had traveled long distances to attend the conference, the President of Suriname decided to close the conference early following the indigenous and tribal peoples’presentation of their joint position on land and resource rights. With this, all subsequent dialogue between the indigenous and tribal peoples and the government has ceased.
During national elections in 2010, the current ruling government promised to legally recognise the land rights of indigenous and tribal peoples in Suriname before the end of its term. Suriname still has no legislation on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, and several international Human Rights bodies have insisted that Suriname recognises these rights. The most famous example is the binding Saramaka judgment of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which ruled that Suriname must make legal provisions to recognise and respect the rights of the Saramaka tribal people to, among others, their collective land ownership and traditional resource rights, free prior and informed consent and their communities as legal ‘persons’. In a technical support visit to Suriname, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provided similar recommendations to the government. The deadline for implementing the Saramaka judgment of 2007, which was mid-December 2010, and the government’s policy intentions to regulate the gold mining sector in the interior, where indigenous and tribal peoples’ territories are located, were direct triggers for the government to call for a land rights conference.
This land rights conference was announced and prepared by the Government of Suriname without the effective participation of indigenous and tribal peoples. The Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname (VIDS) and representatives of the six tribal maroon peoples who met regularly to discuss the implementation of the Saramaka judgment with the Ministry of Regional Development, were very marginally involved in the substantial preparations for the conference.
On the second day of the conference, an indigenous village leader made a presentation on behalf of all indigenous and tribal maroon authorities, and also handed over a signed resolution to the government. This resolution had been prepared during the regular meetings of the indigenous and tribal peoples in the months preceding the conference and was, during the conference, formally adopted by the highest traditional authorities during an internal strategy and preparation meeting. Despite the fact that the content of this resolution had been shared in writing with the Government a few months before the Conference, the government delegates expressed to be ‘taken by full surprise’ by the ‘sudden demands’ of the indigenous and tribal peoples. The President decided immediately after the presentation to shut down the conference, without any tangible result.
Table 1 shows how the positions of the indigenous and tribal peoples and the Government compare to each other. Despite some differences in views, it is the opinion of the indigenous and tribal peoples in Suriname that their position and the position of the Government of Suriname contain enough similarities and overlaps to provide a basis for further dialogue. However, the President of Suriname recently said during a press conference that the positions are ‘totally contradictory’. He decided unilaterally that the National Assembly (Parliament) should decide further on the land rights issue.
In the media, indigenous and tribal peoples were called‘uncivilized’ and even ‘stupid’ by government officials. Divide-and-rule politics have also apparently been applied by the President, who ordered indigenous authorities, from isolated Southern communities, to meet with the Government separately after the conference. He subsequently issued a statement in which these communities appear to express that they do not support the position that was presented by the indigenous and tribal peoples at the conference, contradicting the less isolated coastal indigenous and tribal communities.
Despite all this, the indigenous and tribal peoples of Suriname still believe that a respectful dialogue will bring about a solution to the land rights issue in Suriname, but they maintain that this solution must be compliant with international standards on indigenous and tribal peoples’ rights, and they are hoping that this dialogue will continue soon.
Table 1: Positions on key rights issues by the Government and indigenous and tribal peoples:
Government of Suriname
Indigenous and Tribal Peoples
Indigenous and tribal peoples’ land rights
Interpreted as users’ rights
Interpreted as collective ownership
Indigenous and tribal peoples rights to natural resources
Refers to resources above the ground only
Refers to all traditionally used resources above and below the ground
Unity of the state
Suriname is not dividable (inseparable)
Indigenous and tribal peoples do not want separation from Suriname, but respect for their self determination
Activities that are planned in indigenous and tribal peoples’traditional territories
The State shall not issue any permits or concessions for logging, mining or other land use in or nearby indigenous and tribal peoples’ communities

The State shall not issue any permits or concessions for logging, mining or other land use in or nearby indigenous and tribal peoples’ communities
; and free, prior and informed consent must be obtained
Legal measures that need to be taken
Revising regulations
Legally recognising land rights
Recognising collectivities in the law
Legally recognising land rights
Revising constitution and laws
Recognising collectivities in the law, including indigenous and tribal peoples’ representative traditional authorities
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