50 Years of Disrespect: Protected Areas in Suriname

Compared to many other countries, nature conservation has a relatively long history in Suriname. Ten protected areas were created in 1954 specifically to compensate for resource exploitation in the coastal area. Currently, 16 protected areas have been established, including one nature park (Brownsweg) and one multiple use management area; six more have been proposed. Counting the most recent nature reserve, the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, established in 1998, protected areas in Suriname now cover over 2 million hectares, amounting to approximately 12 percent of the area of the national territory.

Fifteen of the 22 existing and proposed protected areas are located within or near indigenous and Maroon peoples’1 traditional lands and territories.[2] This proximity is cause for great concern among indigenous peoples and Maroons, not the least because Suriname remains the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has not legislated in any way to recognize and guarantee these peoples’ rights to traditional lands, territories and resources. By virtue of the Suriname Constitution, the state is the owner of almost all land and resources and, pursuant to land and resource legislation, indigenous and Maroon “customary rights” to their villages and settlements can be (and often are) negated by activities classified as being in the “national interest.” Rights to due process and basic consultation, let alone informed consent, are also not recognized nor guaranteed.

Indigenous and Maroon rights are also not adequately guaranteed in Suriname nature conservation laws. In the 1954 Nature Protection Act, which governs 10 protected areas, there are no guarantees at all. The 1986 Nature Protection Resolution, which is seen as an improvement, provides “that the forest inhabitants who live in or near the nature reserves will maintain their traditional rights and interests in the newly established protected areas (a) as long as the national goal of the nature reserves is not violated; (b) as long as the rationale for those traditional rights and interests remains valid and (c) during the process of growing towards one Surinamese citizenship.”[3] In other words, indigenous and Maroon rights are only to be respected during a certain period (when they are not yet assimilated into dominant Surinamese society) and only if they do not interfere with the goals established (without indigenous and Maroon participation) by the state.

Central Suriname Nature Reserve
Similar logic is present in the Nature Protection Resolution of 1998 that established the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR), an area of approximately 1.5 million hectares (9.7 percent of the total Surinamese land mass). Article 2 of the resolution provides that the “villages and settlements of tribal bushland inhabitants will be respected, unless (a) the general interest or the national goal of the established nature reserve is harmed; or (b) it is provided otherwise.” No protection is provided for agricultural, hunting, fishing, and gathering areas, or for sites of religious and cultural significance. The protection of rights to villages and settlements is entirely dependent on the good will of the state.

Initiated by Conservation International, the CSNR was officially opened in New York in June 1998, attracting substantial international media attention. “As far as is known,” the 1998 resolution’s explanatory note reveals, “the area [CSNR] is uninhabited and there are no settlements.” This statement was surprising, as the Maroon Kwinti communities of Witagron and Kaimanston, whose lands are located within and adjacent to the CSNR, had a year earlier been involved in discussions with the United Nations Development Programme about upgrading the Raleighvallen Reserve, the northern-most of the three existing nature reserves incorporated into the CSNR.

Discussing the Raleighvallen Reserve (created in 1961 and enlarged in 1986) at a 2001 conference on indigenous peoples and protected areas organized by indigenous peoples and Maroons from Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana, a Kwinti representative observed that the “reserve was established without any notice and we did not participate in it. Management plans were made and implemented without any involvement of us. We do not share in the benefits (especially from tourism), which come out of it.”[4] Turning to the CSNR, he stated:

The reserve comprises about three-quarters of lands we consider to be our lands. It was established and proclaimed without any notice to us. We were not informed officially; we heard the news from the press. It took a year after the establishment before the government invited us to participate in so-called stakeholder activities. These activities were meant to write a management plan and to establish a trust fund for operation of the CSNR. Maybe it is funny, but we were stakeholders without knowing it. I need to stress that we were not invited because the government wanted us, but due to the fact that this was required by the funding organization. Lots of attention was given to this reserve, nationally as well as internationally, however the negative effects of the reserve on our communities have never been discussed. The only opportunities we had to discuss these negative effects were at the subsequent stakeholder meetings. During these meetings we talked about issues such as traditional use of the land, violation of our land rights, our right to hunt, to fish, to collect traditional medicinal plants.

Nowadays non-indigenous peoples … pretend to be the best conservationists. They deny our lifestyles, which have proven to be the best way to conserve the resources Mother Nature provides. They impose on us a way of conservation which is against our culture and lifestyles. In most cases their way of conservation implies serious violations of our basic human rights, our right to self-determination, our land rights, and our rights to control and manage our natural resources.

The Upper Suriname River Saramaka Maroon people living to the east of the CSNR have also experienced problems. In 2002, they learned that Conservation International, reportedly at the request of the Saramaka paramount leader, the Gaama, intended to expand the CSNR to incorporate the Gaan and Pikin rivers, together comprising around 45 percent of their territory. At that time, the entire area was subject to a precautionary measures order (roughly analogous to an interim injunction) issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which requested that Suriname refrain from all resource development and other activities on lands occupied and used by the Saramaka.[5] The order was issued in relation to Case 12.338 Twelve Saramaka Clans (Suriname), which seeks redress for violations of Saramaka rights caused by logging concessions and the failure of Suriname to recognize and respect the Saramaka people’s territorial rights. In January 2003, the Saramaka requested that the precautionary measures order be reiterated and explicitly mention expansion of the CSNR. The request was withdrawn after Conservation International agreed that it would not pursue further protected area-related activities unless the Saramaka request their assistance again in the future.

1. Maroons are the descendants of African slaves that fought themselves free from slavery and established autonomous societies in the rainforest in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, there are six Maroon peoples in Suriname with an estimated population of around 60,000. See Cultural Survival Quarterly 25: 4.
2. Kambel, E.R. & MacKay, F. (1999). The Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Maroons in Suriname. IWGIA Doc. No. 96. Copenhagen: IWGIA/Forest Peoples Programme. Pp 111.
3. Explanatory note to the 1986 Nature Protection Resolution. P13 (original in Dutch).
4. Emanuel, O. (2001, April). Presentation of the Kwinti at the Conference on Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas in the Three Guyanas, p 3 (on file with authors).
5. Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 2002, Ch. III, para. 75.

Fergus MacKay (fergus@euronet.nl) is coordinator of the Forest Peoples Programme’s Legal and Human Rights Programme and the Three Guyanas Programme. Ricardo Pané (vids@sr.net) is village Chief of the Kalinya community of Christiaankondre (Galibi) and Chairman of the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname.

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