Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Updated on 3 June 2008
The Maroons are descendants of Africans who fled the colonial Dutch forced labour plantations in Suriname and established independent communities in the interior rainforests. They have retained a distinctive identity based on their West African origins.
Maroons are organized as six main groups which can be categorized as two branches based on location, and cultural and linguistic differences. The Eastern branch consists of the Djuka (Aucaner, Awka), the Aluku (Aluku nenge, Boni), and the Paramaka (Paramacca). The Central branch consists of the Saramaka (Saramacca), the Matawai, and the Kwinti.
The Djuka and Saramaka are the largest with populations estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 each. The Aluku, the Paramaka and the Matawai, (a branch of the Saramaka) are much smaller with around 2,000 each. The smallest group is the Kwinti, with fewer than 500 people.
Maroons speak their own distinctive languages. Ndjuka, is spoken by the Djuka, Aluku, and Paramaka;. Saramaccan is spoken by the Saramaka and Matawai.
Most Maroon villages are located along the rivers of the interior of Surinam 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 is 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 wood 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 Surinam, to work as labourers or in the bauxite enclaves. Growing numbers now live in and around Paramaribo, and are expanding eastward into 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 Ndjuka have become gold miners. Three quarters of the small-scale gold miners in Suriname are believed to be of Brazilian origin however the other 25 per cent are Surinamese who are mainly of Maroon descent.
Despite lesser numbers, Maroons retain control of the gold mining in their territories. Currently a majority of Ndjuka men and also a few Ndjuka women are involved in gold mining activities.
Maroon villages existed as a buffer between the Europeans who settled along the coast and the indigenous groups of the inland regions. In Suriname these became distinctive societies reflecting a blend of West African socio-cultural patterns, and indigenous material practices in horticulture, hunting fishing, herbal medicines etc.
Suriname Maroons (also known as ‘Bush Negroes' or ‘Bakabusi Nengre') often returned to attack the plantations and contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery. After a half century of guerrilla warfare the Maroons signed treaties with the Dutch colonial government in the 1760s. This enabled them to continue living a virtually independent existence well into the twentieth century.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Suriname Maroon populations continued to increase. Numbering about 10,000 at the abolition of slavery in 1863, the contemporary Maroon population is now estimated to be around 75,000.
Since independence in 1975 Maroons have 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 made during the colonial era that allowed for significant political, cultural and religious freedom and autonomy have therefore been ignored.
Maroons were the chief victims of the violence of the mid-1980s when the Surinamese Liberation Army (SLA), began guerrilla activities against military posts on Suriname's eastern frontier. Maroon participation n this 1986 uprising was ultimately prompted by these government resettlement policies that threatened the traditional sovereignty of their societies.
Nearly a decade of conflict and economic depression seriously damaged the social infrastructure of the interior. Many refuges fled to French Guiana. Furthermore 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 are 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 things 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 the, a Maroon organization (Vereniging van Saramakaanse Gezagdragers) representing 12 Saramaccaner clans and over 60 villages in the Upper Suriname River area, filed a petition with the Inter-American Human Rights Court (IACHR) claiming that Chinese-owned lumber operations threatened their existence and way of life. The IACHR heard the case during the year, and a decision was expected at the end of January 2006.
In June 2005 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the government of Suriname guilty of human rights violations in the case of the 1986 massacre at the N'Djuka Maroon village of Moiwana 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.
The government has since complied and the attorney general has also established a coordination team to investigate the massacre and other crimes committed by the security forces.
However there is now growing concern about proposals to begin mining bauxite and generating hydropower in the western part of Suriname. This is sure to have a significant environmental impact especially on areas traditionally inhabited by Maroons and indigenous groups.
Suriname Indigenous Village Leaders (VIDS) are continuing to push for greater participation in decisions made with respect to mining and resource exploitation. This is in light of proposed large-scale bauxite mining and other resource extraction initiatives in Western Suriname that will affect four Indigenous communities. The Suriname Indigenous communities who do not have collective land rights have not been consulted about the mining plans. Moreover at least two are facing forcible relocation.
Their main objective is to ensure that their rights are recognized and respected and that they are able to make informed decisions. The IDB which is considering financing the hydro-electric dam that would provide electricity to the mine has provided research funds that would feed into the official social and environmental impact assessment and funds have been secured for the mapping of ancestral lands.
Also in July 2007 the Organization of Indigenous People of Suriname (OIS) submitted a petition to the government of Surinamese and the French ambassador to Suriname, calling for an end to activities in the recently created two million hectare French Guiana Park.
In the past year the French Army has begun ordering Indigenous People to stop all hunting and fishing in a disputed area along the southeastern border of Suriname. Reports have also revealed that the French Army has been destroying the property of six tribal communities.
Ironically the park is the result of a commitment signed by French Guiana and the French government at 1992 Rio Summit during which a decision was made to create a large protected forest area in the Southern region of French Guiana. However this has long been the traditional ancestral territory of the main indigenous groups of that region whose cultural practices have been critical in protecting and preserving the natural environment of the proposed national park area for several thousand prior years.
Although generally supportive of the plan, indigenous communities in the affected area had expressed concerns from the outset about the limited regard for their presence and cultural identity in the proposals that were being developed.
Little attempt was made during initial planning stages to consult with indigenous communities in either Suriname or French Guiana over their traditional land use patterns or general needs. When they were finally included in negotiations five years later (1997) provisions were made for them to circulate freely throughout the protected area and practice their traditional activities.
Indigeous groups in French Guiana had also asked for their own traditional authorities to be incorporated in the management of the protected area and to be legally recognized as such under the French constitution.
Since 1969 Indigenous groups in French Guiana were brought under French socio-cultural rule. France is not a signatory to ILO 169 and traditional indigenous land claims are not recognized. Like wise Indigenous and tribal communities in Suriname don’t have formal title to their lands either.
The president of the Organization of Indigenous People of Suriname accused the French government of going ahead with park creation although the issue of indigenous land rights had not yet been formally addressed moreover he also accused the French authorities of trespassing on Surinamese territory.
The 1997 proposal also prohibited mining activities in the biologically rich zones However due to the high gold bearing potential of the area, this version was rejected by the government of French Guyana based on economic arguments.
Indigenous groups in the region see their cultural practices as being critical to the protection of the natural environment of the national park and want this relationship reflected in the proposal.
They would especially like to see the eradication of gold mining activities near indigenous people’s lands especially because of the attendant problems. These include mercury pollution and social disruptions such as prostitution, alcoholism, violence and youth suicide. Instead they are arguing for the promotion of alternative economic activities such as tourism, agriculture and craft production, which are more in keeping with overall sustainability and their traditional culture and lifestyle. At the end of 2005 the issue was still under debate.