Maroons Say No To Multinational Logging
By the Forest Peoples Programme
on the north-eastern corner of South America, has the dubious distinction
of having no laws protecting its indigenous populations. It is also something
of a case study of what happens when a heavily indebted government seeks
money by selling off mining and logging rights to land where indigenous
Leaders of 23 Saramacca Maroon villages gathered in the community of
Pikin Slee on 13th and 14th March of last year to discuss land rights
incursions of a Chinese logging company in their village. The village
leaders stated unequivocally that they were opposed to the operations
of the Chinese company, NV Tacoba (a.k.a. Tacoba Forestry Consultants)
in or near their ancestral lands. They also stated that they want their
rights to own and control their ancestral lands, as defined by international
human rights law, recognized and respected. [Maroons are the descendants
of African slaves who fought for and won their freedom from the Dutch
colonial regime that ruled Surinam until 1975.] Maroons rights to
freedom from slavery and to self-government within their territories were
recognized in treaties concluded with the Dutch in the 18th century. Since
that time they have been living in Surinams rain forests, concentrated
along the major waterways. The Saramacca are one of the six Maroon peoples
The present government of Surinam states that it has no legal obligations
under the treaties with the Maroons and does not recognize their rights
to own their ancestral lands. Furthermore, it has or is in the process
of granting vast areas of the rain forest in concession to multinational
logging and mining companies. These concessions are granted without even
notifying indigenous and Maroon communities, let alone seeking their participation
or approval, even if their villages fall within the concessions. Presently,
at least two-thirds of indigenous and Maroon communities are either in
or very near to logging and mining concessions.
The Saramacca leaders first became aware that a concession had been granted
in their territory when a group of English-speaking Chinese
arrived in the communities of Nieuw Aroura and Goejaba and informed the
communities that they were about to begin logging operations. The communities
later discovered that Tacoba and other logging companies had been granted
multiple logging concessions in and near their territory. An Indonesian
company, Barito Pacific, is also rumored to be acquiring a concession
of 600,000 hectares covering Saramacca and Aucaner Maroon territories
from central Surinam to the Marowijne River, which forms Surinams
eastern border. Barito representatives recently visited the area (Jai
Kreek) accompanied by Surinamese national army troops and helicopters
carrying a letter signed personally by the President of Surinam. Apparently,
a deal was signed with Barito while the President of Surinam was in Indonesia
in September 1997.
In Surinam, it is illegal for one person or company to hold more than
150,000 hectares of concessions without the approval of the National Assembly.
Tacoba clearly has more than 150,000 hectares, as does a Malaysian company
Berjaya Berhad and an Indonesian company, NV MUSA. Barito Pacific also
looks certain to acquire more than the legal limit if they receive (if
they have not already received) the 600,000 hectare concession sought
in central-east Surinam. None of these concessions has been approved by
the National Assembly.
Little is known about NV Tacoba, although it is suspected that they are
a Chinese state-owned company, locally incorporated in Surinam. Tacoba
representatives have stated that Tacobas parent company is based
in Hong Kong. Its subsidiaries are involved in logging, shipping, road
building and containers. The representatives said that Tacoba has been
working in Surinam since 1993, but it is clear that its present owners
are different from the original ones. Tacoba is also known to have relations
with the former military dictator, Desi Bouterse, himself active in the
timber business as a third party buyer, and other members of Surinams
ruling party, the National Democratic Party. Surinam recently opened
embassy in China and has been seeking expanded trade and aid relations.
Tacoba seems to be the first major Chinese investor in Surinam.
One of Tacobas concessions encompasses the Maroon community of Dowatra.
Reportedly, Tacoba representatives told the village leader of Dowatra
that his community was not allowed to use forest more than one kilometer
from the village as the area was now a Tacoba concession. They then stated
that if he complained, and tried to take the company to court, he would
lose his case and be put in jail. According to community members, forest
resources are used by the community up to 20 kilometers from the village
for basic subsistence purposes. Tacoba has proceeded to construct 15 logging
roads off the main road in the area of Dowatra and is cutting a substantial
amount of timber, which is then transported approximately 100 kilometers
north, and carried by river to the coast. Tacobas logs are loaded
into the river at NV MUSAs loading dock at Kromenie. It is unknown
if Tacoba has completed an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment
for its operations; if it has, it has not been made public.
The Saramacca leaders have formed an association to educate their communities
about land rights and the environment and to oppose the activities of
Tacoba. They have started to map their lands with the aim of presenting
a request for title to the government. However, prospects for legal recognition
through negotiation or recourse to the legal system appear to be minimal.
Surinam is presently the only country in the western hemisphere that does
not have legal, constitutional or other provisions that account in some
way for indigenous and Maroon rights to land.
The government has made promises to address the issue, dating back to
1992, but has failed to live up to them. Presently, all land in the interior
of the country (approximately 80 percent) is classified as state land
and indigenous peoples and Maroons are considered to be permissive
occupiers of state land without rights or title thereto. If
their subsistence activities conflict with logging or mining operations,
the latter take precedence as a matter of law. Furthermore, Surinamese
law does not provide any mechanism for consulting with communities about
the granting of concessions on or near their territories.
International human rights standards state that indigenous peoples and
Maroons have the right to participate fully in decisions before they are
taken about whether concessions are granted on their lands. This right
includes the right to information concerning the proposed activities,
companies involved and the nature of the risks posed by the activity.
Surinam has or is in the process of granting multiple logging concessions.
These concessions most likely amount to well over two million hectares
in total and have been granted to companies with dubious records concerning
the environment and human rights. Moreover, the governments capacity
to monitor the operations of these companies, despite an infusion of aid
aimed at strengthening forest management institutions, is minimal to non-existent.
Also, many in Surinam question the inclination of the government to monitor
company operations and impose penalties for abusive practices. MUSA, for
instance, which has operated for many years in Surinam, has persistently
violated the law and the terms of its operating permitthis is widely
known in Surinamand has never been fined by the Forestry Service.
In fact, there has never even been an official complaint against a logging
company filed by the government.
Surinams rain forests are high in biological diversity and endemic
species and are the ancestral homelands of tens of thousands of indigenous
peoples and Maroons. If the government continues down its present course,
these forests and the peoples dependent on them will be seriously, perhaps
For further information please contact: Forest Peoples Programme, 1c,
Fosseway Business Centre, Stratford Road, Moreton in Marsh, GL56 9NQ,
United Kingdom, Tel. 011-44-1608-652893. Fax. 011-44-1608-652878. Email: