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Indigenous Peoples in Suriname

  • According to the 2012 Census, Suriname’s indigenous communities comprised 20,344 people. The four largest peoples are: Kaliña (Caribs), Lokono (Arawak), Trio (Tirio, Tareno) and Wayana. In addition, there are small settlements of other Amazonian indigenous peoples, mainly in the south of the country, including the Akoerio, Warao, Apalai, Wai-Wai, Okomoyana, Mawayana, Katuena, Tunayana, Pireuyana, Sikiiyana, Alamayana, Maraso, Awayakule, Sirewu, Upuruy, Sarayana, Kasjoeyana, Murumuruyo, Kukuyana, Piyanakoto and Sakëta. The Kaliña and Lokono live mainly in the northern part of the country, while Tiriyo, Wayana and other Amazonian indigenous peoples live in the south of Suriname. Indigenous populations living in the remote interior have limited access to education, employment, health care or other social services.

    Suriname’s indigenous peoples are concentrated both in the northern part of the district of Sipaliwini and close to the southern border with Brazil. Whereas some Kaliña and Lokono communities in Sipaliwini are located relatively close to an urban centre (Washabo, Apura), others require over eight hours’ travel by boat and/or road (Donderskamp) to get to their nearest town. Tiriyo and Wayana living in the south are the furthest away from urban centres, all requiring travel by boat and foot or by expensive charter flights.

    Although culturally distinct from each other, the country’s indigenous communities share strong socio-economic and spiritual links with the natural environment. They have preserved their own forms of governance and are formally acknowledged through a monthly stipend that indigenous community leaders receive from the government. Despite ongoing modernization processes, Suriname’s indigenous peoples, especially those situated further away from urban centres, are largely dependent on the forest for their subsistence (hunting, fishing and rotational agriculture), housing, transportation in the form of dugout canoes, and health care, using medicinal plants for a range of remedies.

  • Suriname’s government recognizes the existence of different indigenous peoples. However, they do not hold special status under national law, and there has not been any effective demarcation of indigenous territories to date. As the government also neglects to police indigenous lands, these populations face severe problems with illegal and uncontrolled logging and mining. No legislation grants indigenous communities the right to share in the revenues from the exploitation of resources on their traditional lands. Organizations representing indigenous communities complain that small-scale mining operations, mainly by illegal gold miners, dig trenches that cut residents off from their agricultural land and threaten to drive these communities away from their traditional settlements.

    Since 2005, the draft Bill of Collective Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples has been under preparation. In 2019, it was submitted to the Minister of Regional Development along with a proposal for an amendment to the Constitution. However, by the time this entry was last updated, Suriname had not adopted a legal framework to recognize indigenous peoples’ collective rights to their lands and resources and had not conducted any demarcation or titling of their territories. The draft was submitted to parliament in June 2021 but only taken into consideration in January 2023. Numerous amendments appear to be blocking passage, mostly motivated by the vested interests of companies and landowners granted title to indigenous and Maroon lands.

    On several occasions, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) has expressed concern for Suriname’s lack of any legal framework to recognize and protect indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources and its failure to guarantee control of their territories without any outside interference.

    In its landmark 2015 decision in the case Kaliña and Lokono v. Suriname, the IACtHR ordered the state of Suriname to grant indigenous and tribal peoples recognition of their collective legal personality; establish an effective mechanism for the delimitation, demarcation and titling of their territories; adopt domestic remedies in order to ensure effective collective access to justice for indigenous and tribal peoples; and guarantee the meaningful participation, by means of a consultation process, of indigenous and tribal peoples.

    The case concerns the rights of the indigenous Kaliña and Lokono peoples in Suriname. During the 1960s through the 1980s, the state established three separate nature reserves on Kaliña and Lokono ancestral territories. These reserves negatively affected these indigenous peoples by preventing their communities from accessing certain parts of their lands. Bauxite mining also commenced in the nature preserves, which had a significant negative impact on the area’s ecosystem. The authorities began to sell land that was contiguous to Kaliña and Lokono territories to non-indigenous people and facilitated the development of an urban housing project. As Suriname does not recognize indigenous peoples as legal entities, the petitioners were unable collectively to retain title to their lands. The IACtHR declared the state of Suriname responsible for the violation of the indigenous peoples’ rights to the recognition of their juridical personality, to their collective property, to their political rights and to their cultural identity, and to the obligation to adopt the necessary domestic legal provisions.

    The judgment has not yet been implemented, and no step toward the implementation of this decision has been taken.

    Another growing concern for Suriname’s indigenous peoples is the increasing harm being caused to the environment, particularly through natural resource extraction. Mercury pollution caused by gold mining is rampant, and Suriname’s indigenous population is at risk of elevated levels of mercury exposure due to mining activity. Many indigenous communities are particularly at risk of dangerous levels of mercury exposure due to their reliance on fishing. According to Dialogue Earth, nearly half of the wild-caught predatory fish register elevated amounts of mercury.

    Currently, approximately 93 per cent of Suriname is primary forest, which means that it is one of the few countries in the world that is carbon-negative, emitting less CO2 than it emits. In 2023, plans emerged that the government is considering setting aside hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for agricultural purposes. This would mean that vast areas of rainforest would be cut down. The Association of Indigenous Village Heads in Suriname (VIDS) denounced the plans, stating that the livelihoods of Suriname’s indigenous peoples were threatened. Others questioned how this could be consistent with the government’s intention to earn billions of US dollars from carbon storage and absorption.

Updated June 2024

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