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Leaders of Indigenous, Afro-descendent and peasant communities from Bolivia, Colombia and Suriname came together in August 2022 to share experiences with territorial governance and sustainable forest management. This resulted in a unique opportunity to learn and connect. For the Saamaka people from Suriname, it not only provided practical lessons but also inspiration to continue their struggle for land rights.
In recent years, many governments have been formalizing the rights of Indigenous people and local communities to use and manage forest resources. Such tenure reforms give local actors greater control over forest resources, but they also come with new responsibilities. TBI network partners work with communities to apply for tenure rights, and to strengthen their capacity to deal with new opportunities as well as threats that come with tenure changes.
TBI network partners from Bolivia, Colombia and Suriname realized that the communities they work with can learn from each other. Between 8 and 13 August they organized a meeting in Villa de Leyva, Colombia, where 21 community representatives and 17 facilitators (from TBI and TBI partners) shared experiences with territorial governance and sustainable forest management. The regional exchange was called the Gaan Kuutu, which means ‘tribal meeting’ in the language of the Saamaka tribe — descendants of enslaved people from Africa who successfully freed themselves and established communities deep in the interior rainforest of Suriname.
“We could not speak each other’s language,
but we understood each other.”
Tropenbos Suriname, which has been working with the Saamaka for many years, invited six Saamaka representatives to join the regional exchange, including Mr. Biza Akienboto and Kapitein Stiefen Petrusi. For them, the meeting came timely, because the Saamaka are expected to receive formal rights over their territory, as part of a new law that will provide collective rights to all Indigenous and tribal people of Suriname. The meeting provided a unique opportunity for the Saamaka to learn from communities in Bolivia and Colombia who received territorial rights years ago.
“I learned that Bolivian Indigenous communities are in control of their own logging operations, based on their own long-term management plan,” says Biza Akienboto. “As Saamaka we can follow the example of the Bolivian communities. We can start developing our own logging operations, as well as other economic activities, such as tourism. But it requires that we get organized as a tribe.”
During the last two days of the weeklong meeting, each country delegation used the insights from the discussions with other participants to develop a roadmap, outlining the necessary next steps in support of territorial governance and sustainable forest management. For the Surinamese delegation it was clear that the roadmap would need to improve organization at the level of the tribe. However, this is easier said than done, because the Saamaka tribe is large, with 12 Clans and over 70 villages, and there is a lack of trust between the different traditional leaders. The Saamaka representatives agreed that it was pivotal to first rebuild trust among leaders and revive the traditional system of decision-making within the tribe. This became the first step on their roadmap.
According to Petrusi and Akienboto, the meeting not only provided practical lessons and insights, but it also created a strong bond between the various participants. “We could not speak each other’s language, but we understood each other. After one day we all felt part of a family,” says Stiefen Petrusi, who is the traditional leader (Kapitein) of one of the larger Saamaka villages and chairs the Bureau of the Association of Saamaka Traditional Authorities (VSG).
The strong sense of connection stems from the background and stories that the participants from the three countries share, thinks Petrusi. These are stories of marginalization and struggle, but also of nature and culture. “My forefathers escaped the plantations and fled into the forest, where they were welcomed by Indigenous people, who shared their lands, and taught them about the forest,” says Petrusi. “One of the Indigenous participants from Bolivia gave me a traditional backpack woven from palm leaves. This was a very special moment for me. The Indigenous people in Suriname taught my grandparents how to make a similar backpack. When I received this backpack, I felt so close to home.”
For Petrusi and Akienboto it was of great importance to learn that people from other countries acknowledged and respected the work they have been doing for the Saamaka people, and to know that they are not alone in their struggles. It gave them both motivation and inspiration. Back home in Suriname, they are now working with Tropenbos Suriname to implement the roadmap they drew up during the meeting in Colombia, towards greater local autonomy and sustainable management of their territory.