Trust among traditional leaders is key for sustainable forest management - In conversation with Biza Akienboto

Trust among traditional leaders is key for sustainable forest management - In conversation with Biza Akienboto

Suriname - 29 September, 2022
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

Indigenous, tribal and peasant communities from Bolivia, Colombia and Suriname recently exchanged their experiences with territorial governance. According to Biza Akienboto, member of the Saamaka tribe in Suriname, this will help them prepare for the formal recognition of their territorial rights.

The Saamaka descent from enslaved people from Africa who, during the Dutch colonial rule over Suriname, freed themselves and established communities deep in the interior rainforest, where they developed their own distinctive culture. Today, the Saamaka tribe consists of 12 Clans and over 70 villages, each with their own traditional leader, and a Paramount Chief (Gaama), who heads the tribe as a whole. The Saamaka leaders are organized in the Association of Saamaka Traditional Authorities (VSG).

Biza Akienboto is a member of the youth group of the VSG, and recently joined a meeting with representatives of Indigenous, tribal and peasant communities from Bolivia and Colombia, to exchange experiences with territorial governance. This topic is particularly relevant for the Saamaka, as the central government is expected to grant them (as well as other Indigenous and tribal peoples in Suriname) with formal collective rights over their traditional territory. Here he talks with Koen Kusters about what the Saamaka can learn from Bolivia and Colombia, where territorial rights were already formalized many years ago.


You spent six days with community representatives from Colombia and Bolivia, talking about territorial governance. What did you learn from them?

Some Saamaka village heads currently lease out tracts of the forest to commercial logging companies. Most of the profits go to the village heads and the companies. From the Bolivian participants I learned that there are alternative ways to organize forest management, with more benefits for the community. I learned that Bolivian Indigenous communities are in control of their own logging operations, based on their own long-term management plans. As Saamaka we can follow the example of 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.

The Colombian delegation included representatives of Indigenous as well as peasant communities. In what way are their experiences relevant for the Saamaka?

Indigenous and peasant communities in Colombia are reaching out to each other. They want to coexist in a peaceful manner. They expressed that they want to help each other. That really inspired me. I think that we as Saamaka should also reach out to our neighbors, the Indigenous people of Suriname. They gave us room to develop our territories on their lands. We have always been in good standing with them, but I think we can do more to help, because they are facing many challenges.

During the last two days of the meeting, each country delegation developed a roadmap, identifying the steps that need to be taken in their own territory. What did the Saamaka roadmap focus on?

We focussed on strengthening the Saamaka governance structure. We realized that we need to build on our Saamaka traditions and rebuild trust among traditional leaders. This is a condition for the sustainable management of the natural resources in our territory. We need to organize ourselves, so we are better prepared when our territorial rights are finally formalized. Listening to the stories of the other participants gave the motivation to start working on this. We agreed that we need to start with reviving the traditional system of decision-making within the tribe. As a first step, the VSG and Tropenbos Suriname are going to work together to provide trainings in 15 villages to raise awareness about the traditional system, and to stimulate people’s participation in collective decision-making processes. We will also start with documenting customary Saamaka regulations.

What has been the main take-home message?

On the second day of the regional exchange, we played a serious game that revolved around trust, and the effects of trust on decision-making. This made me see how important trust is in our own Saamaka context. Within the Saamaka tribe, trust between the various traditional leaders has been waning. Many village leaders, who are nominated for life, are no longer adhering to traditional rules. They make decisions based on personal interests, without involving community members or other traditional authorities. This is a real problem, and it creates conflicts within the tribe. I realized that, in order to strengthen our territorial governance, we need to start with rebuilding trust. Ultimately, trust is the basis for the sustainable management of the natural resources within our territory.