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Maroons in Suriname

  • According to the 2012 Census, there were 117,567 people identifying as Maroon and representing 21.7 per cent of the total population. This makes Maroons the second largest ethnic group in Suriname (after the Indo-Surinamese or East Indian community). There was a sizeable increase in the number of respondents self-identifying as Maroon in 2012. In the 2004 Census, only 14.7 per cent identified as such. At that time, Creoles were the second largest ethnic group.

    Maroons are descendants of Africans who fled enslavement on the colonial Dutch plantations in Suriname and established independent communities in the interior rainforests. They have retained a distinctive identity based on their ancestors’ West African origins.

    Maroons are organized into six main groups categorized as two branches based on location, and cultural and linguistic differences. The Eastern branch consists of the N’djuka (Aucaner, Awka), the Aluku (Aluku nenge, Boni) and the Paamaka (also Paramacca or Paramaka). The Central branch consists of the Saamaka (also Saramacca or Saramaka), the Matawai and the Kwinti. The N’djuka and Saamaka are the largest with populations estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 each. The Aluku, the Paamaka and the Matawai (a branch of the Saamaka) are much smaller with around 2,000 each. The smallest group is the Kwinti, with fewer than 500 people. (These figures have not been updated; community estimates are much higher.) Maroons speak their own distinctive languages. N’djuka is spoken by the N’djuka, Aluku and Paamaka. Saamaka is spoken by the Saamaka and Matawai.

    Social structures

    Most Maroon villages are located along the rivers of the interior of Suriname, and access is heavily dependent on canoes and other watercraft. Maroon populations average from one to two hundred residents.

    Each Maroon group except the Kwinti, has a main authority called the granman or paramount chief. The granman directs a team of officials called kapiteins (captains), who are in charge of the villages or clans. The granman and kapiteins are assisted at community level by basias (heralds or monitors) who implement socio-political control governed by religious principles. Maroon religion manifests many traditional African elements, including oracles and the veneration of African ancestors and spirits.

    Traditional Maroon life is culturally rich. A complex series of cults and shrines serve as focal points for groups of residentially dispersed kinfolk. There are many highly skillful artists who specialize in wooden sculptures, and there is a strong performance and oratorical tradition.

    Maroon society traces descent through the female line. The central group of a village consists of the descendants of an ancestral mother. Females also play a major role in the economy. Maroon economy has been traditionally based on female subsistence horticulture, and male hunting and fishing.

    In recent years, this has increasingly been supplemented by periodic migrant male wage labour, leaving women mainly in control of management of the household. Some Maroons have moved to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, to work as labourers or in the bauxite industry. Growing numbers now live in and around Paramaribo; others have migrated to adjacent French Guiana.

    Many Maroons also left Suriname during the civil war (1986-1992) and later as economic migrants. A large majority of Maroons now have relatives living abroad – particularly in the Netherlands – who send remittances.

    Since the mid-1980s, a gold rush has occurred in the Suriname portion of the Amazon rain forest, and many Maroons have become gold miners. Three quarters of the small-scale gold miners in Suriname are nevertheless believed to be of Brazilian origin, referred to as garimpeiros; however, the other 25 per cent are primarily Surinamese who are mainly of Maroon descent. Currently, a majority of N’djuka men and a few N’djuka women are involved in gold mining activities, although other Maroon communities such as Paamaka and Matawai participate as well.

  • Maroon villages were established between the European settlements and plantations along the coast and the indigenous peoples of the inland regions. In Suriname, these Maroon communities developed distinctive societies reflecting a blend of West African socio-cultural patterns and indigenous material practices in horticulture, hunting, fishing, and the cultivation and collection of herbal medicines.

    Maroons often returned to attack the plantations and contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery. After a half century of guerrilla warfare, Maroons signed treaties with the Dutch colonial government in the 1760s. This enabled them to continue to live a virtually independent existence well into the twentieth century.

    Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Maroon populations continued to increase. Numbering about 10,000 at the abolition of slavery in 1863, the contemporary Maroon population is now estimated to number nearly 120,000 people.

    Following independence in 1975, Maroons resented domination by governing urban oriented Creoles and particularly the military, who sought to move them to urban settlements and ‘modernize’ their way of life. Traditional treaty rights gained during the colonial era that allowed for significant political, cultural and religious freedom and autonomy were therefore being ignored.

    Maroons were the chief victims of the violence of the mid-1980s when the Surinamese Liberation Army (also known as the Jungle Commando) began guerrilla activities against military posts on Suriname’s eastern frontier. Maroon participation in this 1986 uprising was ultimately prompted by these government resettlement policies that threatened the traditional sovereignty of their societies. In November 1986, a Surinamese military unit launched an operation against the N’djuka Maroon village of Moiwana, believed to be the base of Ronnie Brunswijk, leader of the Surinamese Liberation Army. At least 40 residents were systematically killed in what became known as the Moiwana massacre.

    In June 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) found the government of Suriname guilty of human rights violations in the case of the Moiwana massacre and the intentional destruction of their property by a unit of the National Army. The Court ordered the government to pay reparations to each survivor, investigate the crimes, and conduct a public ceremony whereby the state recognizes its responsibility and apologizes to the N’Djuka people. While some steps have been taken by the government, for instance by paying compensation, apologizing for the actions of the military and building a memorial, those responsible for the massacre have still not faced prosecution.

    Nearly a decade of conflict and economic depression seriously damaged the social infrastructure of the interior. Many Maroon and indigenous refugees fled to French Guiana. Forest schools were closed during the war, leaving a generation of Maroon youths without education. Limited schooling, illiteracy and ethnic discrimination in urban areas closed access to the formal labour market for many Maroons, who remain among the poorest members of Suriname society.

  • The geographical isolation of Maroon communities and the cultural distinctiveness that have preserved their societies for centuries ironically became major survival issues in the post-independence period. Among other consequences, these served to limit Maroon participation in national political processes.

    Three Maroon political parties participated in the May 2005 elections, which produced eight Maroon representatives to the National Assembly and created a coalition between the three contesting Maroon parties. This grouping eventually became part of the overall national governing coalition with Maroon representatives obtaining three cabinet positions.

    In 2000, a Maroon organization, the Association of Saamaka Authorities (Vereniging van Saamakaanse Gezagsdragers), representing 12 Saamaka clans and over 60 villages in the Upper Suriname River area, filed a petition with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) stating that Chinese-owned lumber operations threatened their existence and way of life. The IACtHR issued its judgement in 2007. (Note that while the IACtHR case is formally known as Saramaka v. Suriname, the community has since adopted the spelling ‘Saamaka’ to reflect their own pronunciation.) Crucially, the Court determined that the Saamaka should be considered a tribal people, with a similar relationship to their traditional territory as indigenous peoples. It recognized their rights over their lands in a manner akin to those of indigenous peoples, for instance their right to free, prior and informed consent. It said that the government should ‘delimit, demarcate and grant collective title’ to their lands. The Court also ordered a halt in logging activities, pending official recognition of these rights.

    Unfortunately, logging and other encroachment on Saamaka lands has since persisted. Some years after the judgement, in 2011, the Canadian mining company IAMGOLD announced plans to expand operations at its Rosebel gold mine, which is situated on Saamaka territory.

    Suriname’s Maroon communities therefore face challenges similar to those confronting the country’s indigenous peoples when it comes to their land rights. Since 2005, the 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 updated, Suriname had not adopted a legal framework to recognize Maroon 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 Maroon lands.

    The fact that artisanal small-scale goldmining has been pursued by Maroon communities for several generations has been a mixed blessing. While it has brought employment, the commonly used amalgamation method has also brought considerable environmental harm.

    An estimated 20,000 to 35,000 people work in Suriname’s mining industry, although the most accurate figure (including informal miners) may be twice that number. Small-scale gold production is particularly associated with Maroon communities, which have been pursuing this artisanal form of mining for generations. However, most of the workers in this sector are migrants from Brazil, referred to as garimpeiros, who introduced the hydraulic method to the region in the early 1990s and now account for around three-quarters of the gold mining population in the country. The remaining gold miners are mostly N’djuka, Paamaka and Matawai Maroons.

    Small-scale and industrial gold mining in Suriname continues to take place within the boundaries of traditional Maroon territories.  The majority of Maroons live in the central-eastern part of the country, which is also where the mineral-rich Greenstone Belt and gold deposits are located. In some Maroon villages such as the Paamaka, Aukan and Matawai communities, inhabitants have become economically dependent on gold mining. Small-scale gold mining is therefore the predominant economic activity among Maroons and affects their communities in a variety of harmful ways, as reflected in the increased number of cases of malaria, sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) and mercury poisoning which are registered amongst residents.

    Mercury amalgamation is used to separate out the gold. The resulting mercury pollution has severe consequences for the environment and the human settlements that depend upon it. Suriname’s gold mining with mercury amalgamation is the main and nearly exclusive source of anthropogenic releases of mercury into the country’s environment. Suriname’s mercury emissions from anthropogenic sources, nearly 90 metric tonnes per year, is among the highest in the world relative to the country’s size. Gold mining contributes 97 per cent of that pollution.

Updated June 2024

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