Suriname Tribe Protects Land, Ensures Rights

Jabini and EduardsSix relatively unknown grassroots activists from around the globe receive a moment in the spotlight when the Goldman Environmental Prize announces its list of annual recipients. The prize, now in its 20th year, is considered the Nobel Prize for the environment. Past recipients include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva, and Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed seven months after his recognition.

The Worldwatch Institute is honoring this year's prize winners with a series of profiles based on personal interviews. Click here for additional profiles.

When Suriname gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1975, it was among the most prosperous countries in South America. With the economy thriving, the Maroons tribal people, descendents of escaped African slaves, were left largely in peace.

But a handful of military dictatorships, along with drug trafficking and corruption, led to a decline in foreign aid in the 1990s, and Suriname's inflated economy tumbled. As a result, the country's rich tropical forests - once viewed as the best chance for long-term sustainable development - were plundered, and the rights of its tribal people were largely ignored.

The Saramaka, a group of Maroons, live in a 9,000-square-kilometer area of central Suriname. In the 1960s, a hydroelectric dam built to power a nearby aluminum factory inundated nearly half of their traditional land. More of the territory was threatened when the government allowed Army-supported Chinese logging companies to set up speculation sites in the late 1990s, without the tribe's permission.

"We fought against the logging companies sent by the government. They tried to cut our forests, but we said ‘No,'" said Hugo Jabini, a Saramakan who was raised on the Upper Suriname River. "Our territory in Suriname is the only place that the Saramaka have to call home. It is the only place that we exist."

Jabini was honored last month with the 2009 Goldman Environment Prize for South and Central America, along with Head Captain Wanze Eduards, one of the four members of a powerful Saramaka governing council. The two united the Saramaka to oppose the logging companies and fought their way to an international court. Their victory set an international precedent for tribal land rights.

After loggers allegedly constructed roads through Saramaka farmland in 1996, Eduards and Jabini organized the first community meetings to determine a response. The duo soon realized that the logging companies posed a threat not only to individual villages, but to the whole Saramaka nation. They formed the Association of Saramaka Authorities, an organization to represent the estimated 30,000 Saramaka who live in the region's 63 villages. The association used GPS technology to document their traditional territory and the loggers' activities.

The Saramaka were told that any efforts to disrupt the logging companies' work would result in imprisonment. Regardless, Eduards and Jabini, assisted by the international human rights group Forest Peoples Programme, filed a petition against the logging activities with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000.

The commission requested that Suriname suspend all development activities on Saramaka lands until the claims were investigated. In spite of the complaints, the government allowed at least $11 million worth of tropical hardwoods to be exported in recent years, according to estimates by Robert Goodland, a former chief environment advisor to the World Bank.

In response, the human rights commission sent the Saramaka case to the legally binding Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The allegations stated that Suriname had not recognized the Saramaka's territorial rights - a violation of national law.

The case represented an existential fight for the Saramaka; their entitlement to live in the forest, unbothered by outsiders, was on the line.

"The Saramaka are a unique people and culture that are not found anywhere else in the world," Goodland said during court testimony [PDF]. "If they lose more territory, it would be no exaggeration to say that they will face a substantial risk of irreparable harm to their physical and cultural integrity and survival."

In November 2007, the court ruled [PDF] that Suriname had "violated, to the detriment of the members of the Saramaka people, the right to property." The government was ordered to modify the logging concessions to preserve the Saramaka's survival.

In addition, the court declared that Suriname grant the Saramaka "free informed, and prior consent" for any future development or investment projects that may affect their territory. Future projects must also provide reasonable benefit-sharing and proper environmental and social impact assessments.

The decision was the first international ruling to state that a non-indigenous minority group has legal rights to the natural resources within their territory - a precedent that may persuade other regional bodies or national courts considering similar land disputes, said Lisl Brunner, a human rights lawyer who studied the Saramaka case. "For a group whose identity has been developed specifically in relation to this territory, whose culture is so made by it, they couldn't be moved to another site," she said.

For Jabini and Eduards, the decision represented new hope for the Saramaka. With the guarantee that they can remain in their territory, they are now exploring plans to expand protected areas around their lands and develop an ecotourism industry.

"The forest means everything to the Saramaka. From it we get our food, our medicines, our homes, everything for life," Eduards said at the Goldman Prize reception in Washington, D.C. "We live in the forest and with the forest."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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