The London School of Economics blog recently shared “‘Development’ versus human rights: the Saamaka Maroons’ fight for the rainforests of Suriname,” an article by Richard Price. Price writes, “Though Suriname’s Saamaka people have already achieved a remarkable victory at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that guarantees their right to their territory and the rainforests within it, the state’s continued push towards extractive development means their fight is far from over.”
The Republic of Suriname, a former Dutch colony in northeastern South America, has the highest proportion of rainforest within its national territory, and the most forest per person, of any country in the world. In 2007, after a decade of legal struggle, Suriname’s Saamaka people – today some 115,000 descendants of self-liberated African slaves – won a signal victory before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that guaranteed their territorial rights and offered hope of protecting the rainforest that was central to their way of life.
The Saamaka, the state, and territorial rights
The rebel ancestors of the Saamaka fought for nearly a century and finally signed a peace treaty with the Dutch colonisers that granted them their freedom and territory in 1762, a full century before general emancipation. By then they had already developed a vibrant and independent culture – their own language, religion, kinship, and legal system, and much else.
Then, during the 1990s, they suddenly found their territory invaded by Chinese, Canadian, and other multinational logging and mining companies which were extracting resources with the explicit permission of the state. The constitution of Suriname, an independent republic since 1975, specifies that all non-titled land and resources belong to the state, rendering Maroon peoples such as the Saamaka and numerous indigenous peoples little more than guests on government lands. The constitution also denies the possibility that an indigenous or Maroon people could have a juridical personality and therefore collective rights to property (or to anything else).
After Chinese loggers began to devastate their territory, Saamakas managed to organise their more than sixty villages strung out along the Suriname River for the coming legal battle. In 2000, they petitioned the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which ultimately found in their favour in 2007.
For their leadership of this struggle, Saamaka Headcaptain Wazen Eduards and Saamaka law student Hugo Jabini were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize (often referred to as the environmental Nobel Prize).
They were cited for “having guaranteed territorial rights not just for the Saramaka, but for all the Maroons and indigenous people…. In addition, because the case was settled by the binding Inter-American Court, Eduards and Jabini changed international jurisprudence so that free, prior and informed consent will be required for major development projects throughout the Americas.”
The Saamaka’s victory before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Throughout the Saamakas’ legal struggle, I served as an adviser and expert witness on behalf of the Saamaka People, having carried out ethnographic work with them since 1966. My book, Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial, describes the Saamakas’ historical and spiritual relationship to their territory, its recent desecration in the name of national development by the state, and the events of the trial itself.
In their landmark decision of 2007, Saramaka v Suriname, the justices concluded, after reviewing a great deal of specific testimony (much of it anthropological), that “the members of the Saramaka people make up a tribal community … whose social, cultural and economic characteristics are different from other sections of the national community, particularly because of their special relationship with their ancestral territories, and because they regulate themselves, at least partially, by their own norms, customs, and/or traditions.”
The justices wrote that henceforth, Saamakas, and other Maroons throughout the Americas (for example in Jamaica, Colombia, Belize, Brazil, and elsewhere), would be treated as equivalent to Indigenous Peoples in international law and subject to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. [. . .]