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Suriname - 21 July, 2022
Throughout 2021 Tropenbos Suriname carried out a dialogue with the traditional leaders of the Saamaka tribe in the country’s interior rainforest. By the end of the year this resulted in an agreement to work together to strengthen the tribe’s territorial governance, based on the concerns and priorities of the Saamaka leaders, and with the enthusiastic involvement of Saamaka youth.
The Saamaka are one of six tribal peoples in Suriname. They are descendants of enslaved people from Africa who successfully freed themselves and established communities deep in the interior rainforest. Over centuries they developed their own distinctive culture, including customary laws and territorial boundaries. Most Saamaka in Suriname live in 75 villages along the upper Suriname River and its tributaries.
During the 1990s, the Surinamese government started to grant industrial logging and mining concessions within the Saamaka’s tribal territory, as it regarded the land as state property. The Saamaka’s customary rights were not respected. But soon this will change, as Parliament is expected to approve a new law that provides collective rights to all Indigenous and tribal people, including the Saamaka. The new law will also come with responsibilities. For example, the Saamaka tribe, which consists of 12 clans, will need to adjust their customary governance system to meet formal requirements, such as having a legal entity that represents the tribe as a whole. They will also need to document their customary laws in writing (which are based on oral traditions), have maps of their territory, and agree on protocols to collectively share the benefits derived from the economic use of their soon-to-be-titled land.
Tropenbos Suriname has been active in the Saamaka territory since 2013, and thought it could play a role in supporting the Saamaka with meeting the requirements set by the new law. Throughout 2021 they discussed this effort with the traditional leaders of the Saamaka, organized in the Association of Saamaka Authorities. Towards the end of the year they organized a joint planning exercise with Saamaka representatives, including traditional leaders and young people. During the workshop, the Saamaka shared their views about the steps that would need to be taken to prepare for the new situation, while Tropenbos Suriname listened.
At the end of the workshop, the Association of Saamaka Traditional Authorities and Tropenbos Suriname came to a formal agreement on collaboration, based on the needs and priorities of the Saamaka people. They agreed that Tropenbos Suriname would support a process of internal deliberation between Saamaka clans, Saamaka leaders and community members to strengthen the customary governance system and meet the formal requirements of the land rights law.
Tropenbos Suriname then teamed up with Hugo Jabini to facilitate the internal deliberations. Jabini had been acting as legal representative of and advisor to the Saamaka people for many years. Being widely respected by the traditional authorities, he proved to be the ideal bridge builder. Moreover, the workshop had generated a lot of enthusiasm among the participating Saamaka youth, and resulted in a group of 15 young people becoming active in the Association of Saamaka Traditional Authorities, with technical and financial support from Tropenbos Suriname. All of this will help to ensure that the Saamaka themselves remain in the driver’s seat and that their governance institutions are prepared to take on new formal responsibilities when the law passes.
This article is part of the TBI Annual review 2021,
due for release in July 2022