World Rainforest Movement

Suriname: Logging and tribal rights

Chinese logging companies are relatively new arrivals in South America. In Suriname, at least two have been operating since 1996; in neighbouring Guyana, the first arrivals surfaced in the year 2000. In both cases, the companies are operating on or near Indigenous and Tribal lands. Reports have also surfaced of Chinese companies operating in northern Brazil. According to Surinamese government statistics for the years 1999 and 2000, Chinese loggers were by far the largest producers of round wood and China was by far the largest export destination for Surinamese round wood, exceeding the next highest destination fourfold.

This short article looks at one area of Suriname where the Chinese have set up operations and the impact of those operations on the Saramaka people, one of the six Maroon tribes living within Suriname’s borders. The Saramaka people are one of the largest Maroon tribes, amounting to around 20,000 persons living in over 70 villages located along the Suriname River, one of the main watercourses in the country. They have occupied their territory since at least the early 18th century when their enslaved ancestors escaped coastal plantations and moved into the forest where they established viable, autonomous communities. Their political and cultural autonomy and rights to lands and territory were recognized and reaffirmed during 18th and 19th centuries in treaties with the Dutch colonial government.

The Saramaka qualify as Tribal peoples according to international definitional criteria and for the most part enjoy the same rights as Indigenous peoples under international law. Ownership of Saramaka territory is divided among a number of matrilineal clans. Members of the clans have rights to hunt, fish, farm and gather forest produce in the area owned by their clan, but ownership remains vested collectively in the clan.

However, Suriname’s government does not recognise indigenous rights to lands and resources over which it claims state ownership. On these grounds it issued logging concessions in Saramaka territory in 1990. After intense international pressure, the logging concessions were withdrawn and the government promised to observe the 150,000 hectare limit prescribed by the 1992 Forestry Act.

In 1998, the Surinamese government –jointly with US-based Conservation International– established the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, the largest area of protected tropical forest in the world. With a high press coverage, this move concealed that the reserve meant to the Maroons a loss of at least a third of their ancestral land, without being previously consulted or compensated. Meanwhile, vast areas of rainforests were granted to multinational logging and mining companies, circumventing the Forestry Act’s limits. The trick is to grant multiple 150,000 hectare concessions to several front companies of a big one –Indonesia’s NV Musa, for example, called “the flying bulldozer brigade”, was granted 800,000-1 million hectares in that way.

The Saramaka only became aware of a concession in their territory when the employees of a Chinese logging company calling itself NV Tacoba Forestry Consultants arrived in the area and began operations. Also Chinese Jin Lin Wood Industries surfaced in the area in 2000. According to the Saramaka, Tacoba’s and Jin Lin’s operations have included damage to the forest and water quality, construction of a substantial network of feeder roads contributing to water pollution and further destruction of the forest, a reduction in game animals, destruction of subsistence farms, restrictions on community access to hunting, fishing and farming areas and intimidation from company employees.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, a US newspaper, reported on the activities of logging companies in Suriname on its 20 May 2001 issue: “This was all too clear [environmental degradation] walking through the Jin Lin concession. The company had plowed large, muddy roads about 45 feet wide into the forest, churned up huge piles of earth, and created fetid pools of green and brown water. Unpended and broken trees were everywhere and what were once plots of sweet potatoes, peanuts, ginger, cassava, palm and banana crops –planted in the forest by Maroon villagers– were muddy pits.”

Three complaints were submitted by the Saramaka between October 1999 and October 2000, none of which received any response. They concluded that Surinamese law was so stacked against them that resort to the courts would be futile. So they decided to seek the protection of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and filed a petition there in October 2000, which is presently pending.

What is happening in Suriname is another example of the internationalisation of logging activities driven by an unsustainable consumption pattern. That is why the widely reported ban on domestic logging in China, in part prompted by devastating flooding related to forest loss, has translated in just a shift of scenario. Now the supply operations are carried out abroad and destruction won’t stop until also the other end of the process –demand– is dealt with.