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January 1999
Surinam Maroons Say No To Multinational Logging

By the Forest Peoples Programme

 


Surinam, 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 populations live.

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 and the 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 Surinam’s rain forests, concentrated along the major waterways. The Saramacca are one of the six Maroon peoples of Surinam.

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 Surinam’s 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 Tacoba’s 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 Surinam’s ruling party, the National Democratic Party. Surinam recently opened an 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 Tacoba’s 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. Tacoba’s logs are loaded into the river at NV MUSA’s 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 government’s 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 permit—this is widely known in Surinam—and 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.

Surinam’s 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 irrevocably, affected.

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: wrm@gn.apc.org.

 


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