- For many years, Surinam gave out land titles to non-indigenous individuals and gave mining concessions in the region, without consulting nor getting the consent of indigenous peoples.
- Surinam is one of the few countries in South America that hasn't ratified Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization or ILO.
- Following the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights decision, there is hope that the country will adopt its own legislation in defense of indigenous peoples.
In January of 2007, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights received a formal complaint filed as Case 12,639, about the Kaliña and Lokono indigenous peoples of Suriname.
The case presented the dilemma faced by the communities living in the Lower Marowijne –the most important estuary in that South American country, where there are two natural reserves, the ancestral homes for the Kaliña and Lokono peoples, and various bird species and leatherback sea turtles, among other species of great importance for global biodiversity.
The case deals with a series of violations on the rights of eight indigenous communities. Among them, are Suriname’s laws that take away the communal rights to property and land. Also, historically, Suriname had not created government institutions that recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to the natural resources found within their territories.
For years, the state gave out land titles to non-indigenous individuals; it handed concessions and licenses to mining operations in the region without ever consulting or getting consent, and it even established and operated three natural reserves within the Kaliña and Lokono territories.
This February, nine years since that first complaint, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights declared Suriname responsible for multiple violations. It’s a decision that has no precedent and many implications in a country where there has been a big boom in bauxite and gold mining in recent years, threatening communities and tropical forests alike.
Suriname is one of the few countries in South America that has not ratified Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization or ILO. It was adopted in 1989 and ratified by 20 countries last year as an essential tool to protect the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. In 2007, Suriname voted for the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but its legislative system did not allow for any real changes: the country’s laws are still based on legislation drafted during the colonial era, and they do not recognize indigenous communities.
The British NGO, Forest Peoples Programme, referred to the Court’s decision as “positive”.
For example, the Court demanded that Kaliña and Lokono territories be delimited, demarcated and titled, and that formal processes to decide on restitution of lands affected by third parties and the nature reserves all happen within three years. The Court also ordered Suriname to rehabilitate the “serious damage” caused by the bauxite mining done by subsidiaries of Alcoa and BHP Billiton, without any participation by the Kaliña and Lokono peoples and without having done any form of impact assessment. Lastly, the state was ordered to implement a series of “guarantees of non-repetition,” requiring the legal recognition of the territorial and other rights of all indigenous and tribal peoples in Suriname so that history is not repeated again.
The indigenous peoples of Suriname add up to approximately 20,344 individuals, around 3.8 percent of the country’s population.
Since 2014, representatives from these indigenous communities have been more involved in two important events on the international stage: the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), and the Conference of the Parties (COP20).
Following the decision by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, there is hope that the country will adopt its own legislation in defense of territories and other rights of indigenous peoples –especially now, as interest grows in resources such as bauxite, gold, water, forests, and biodiversity.