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MONTREAL, QUEBEC–"I was 35 years old when the water flooded my village. I had sent my wife and my children away, but I wanted to see for myself if the water would really come...When we noticed that the water reached the cemetery, I went to look at my father’s grave and I went to tell my mother. We cried and we cried...Some of the coffins started floating on the lake," remembers Saramaka Elder George Leidsman in a 2007 court testimony. His village was only one of many Maroon communities forcibly relocated in 1963 to make way for a hydroelectric dam built to power the bauxite refining operations of US company, ALCOA.
Today, a people that have yet to let go of the great sadness that invaded their villages and permanently changed their way of life are being threatened yet again, this time by mining companies.
Suriname, a former Dutch colony situated along the northeast coast of South America, is almost entirely covered in rainforest. The area is the ancestral home of five indigenous peoples and six Tribal peoples – Maroons – totalling between 15 and 20 per cent of the population.
Maroons are the descendants of escaped African slaves who fought for and won their freedom from the Dutch colonial regime in the 1700s. Since then, they have maintained a distinctive culture based largely on a combination of African and indigenous Amerindian traditions.
Less than 30 years ago, Suriname was one of the wealthiest countries in South America. A military dictatorship, followed by a civil war, declining prices for bauxite (its main export) and the suspension of Dutch aid money left the country with considerable economic problems. In recent years, the government has been dividing and portioning off vast areas of the rainforest to multinational mining companies, claiming that mining is needed to finance foreign debt and stimulate economic growth.
At least 75 of the estimated 150 indigenous and Maroon villages in Suriname are located either in or very near mining concessions.
While the Surinamese government claims the rights to all "unencumbered" land as well as all the mineral resources below its surface, the Maroon Tribal peoples say they have a right of ownership and control over their traditional territory. This perceived right is based upon the struggle for freedom that was symbolically brought to an end in sacred treaties with the government in 1863.
According to a report released by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), an NGO that campaigns for the rights of indigenous forest-dwellers, the Maroon Tribes make no distinction between surface and subsurface rights. Their resources and land are viewed holistically and are intertwined with collective, ancestral and divine relationships that govern daily life.
Perceived threats to Maroon understandings of political and territorial autonomy are directly linked to fears of a return to the age of slavery.
Until 2007, when Suriname voted in favor of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it did not legally recognize any form of land rights for its indigenous or Tribal peoples. As stated in a report by the Nautilus Institute, the government has so far treated the Declaration the same way it has past treaties with the Maroons: as non-binding, "domestic political contracts."
"Suriname is a litmus test for why self-regulating standards don’t work," says Viviane Weitzner of the North-South Institute (NSI). According to Weitzner, without legal enforcement there is no guarantee that certain basic rights will be upheld.
Canadian mining interest has intensified in Suriname recently, mainly due to a vast increase in the price of gold in the last few decades.
In 1992, based on their claim of land ownership, the Surinamese government granted the Gross Rosebel gold concession to Golden Star Resources (GSR), a Canadian junior company. In 1994, a Mineral Agreement was signed between GSR and the Surinamese government granting exclusive exploration rights to the company.
Located at the centre of the 17,000-hectare Gross Rosebel concession is the community of Nieuw Koffiekamp, a N’djuka Maroon community of between 500 and 800 people.
The community and other surrounding communities affected by the concession were not consulted or even informed prior to its granting.
From its inception, Rosebel necessitated the relocation of Nieuw Koffiekamp in order to fully realize its potential: at least five open pit mines; about 1.8 million ounces of gold. The community, like many Saramaka villages, was already forced to relocate once for the building of the Afobaka Dam - the same dam that is now being used to power the mining operation that threatens to move them again.
An FPP report describes how elders, men, women and youth alike have testified that a second relocation would be equivalent to the cultural and social death of their community. So far, they have refused to move.
When GSR first began exploration in 1994, they constructed a camp less than one kilometre from the village. Soon after, community leaders reported that they were being denied access to their gardens, hunting and fishing areas, and locations where small-scale mining takes place. Small-scale gold mining provides a much-needed source of income for many of the villagers.
GSR security guards and the police working with them began using live ammunition to intimidate and frighten community members away from areas in which the company was conducting or planning to conduct exploration activities, according to an FPP member.
In 1996, Cambior Inc. of Montreal acquired a 50 per cent interest in the project.
In a meeting with the FPP, Cambior representatives stated that they did not wish to see the community driven off their land, preferring instead to convince them of the need to move instead. Cambior was not willing to accept the community’s right to give or withhold its consent to relocation.
The government and GSR have taken a less tactful position, stating bluntly that the rights of the companies by Mineral Agreement supersede any rights claimed by the community. GSR’s lawyer went so far as to describe community members as “squatters.”
The women of Nieuw Koffiekamp are among the most outspoken against the companies. As the primary caretakers of the agricultural plots around the village, they say they have been subject to harassment by company security and police. They say they are afraid to go to their plots with children. Some of the women were injured fleeing from shooting incidents.
GSR has denied all but one shooting incident.
In response to continued harassment, in 1996, the community blocked the access road to the mining camp. This lasted five weeks until Granman Songo Aboikoni (paramount Tribal leader) intervened.
A Gran Krutu (Great Gathering) of Indigenous and Maroon leaders held the same year demanded that the granting of concessions cease and activities in existing concessions be suspended until their land rights became legally recognized. Indigenous and Maroon leaders put aside long-standing conflicts and came together to condemn the practices of GSR and other companies with similar disregard for affected communities.
In 2006, Toronto-based IAMGOLD took over the Gross Rosebel project through its merger with Cambior.
As reported by Ivan Cairo of Caribbean Net News, gold production at the mine came to a halt in 2007 when angry workers walked out after salary negotiations failed to produce an expected collective agreement.
IAMGOLD claims that workers set up barricades and damaged 25 trucks and 30 all-terrain vehicles. The basement of the mill was also flooded by striking workers. After staging several strikes that same year, some wage increases were negotiated, and production returned to normal.
IAMGOLD is now known as the "main player" in Suriname, as stated by Weitzner, and holds many other significant concessions in the country.
Headley’s Reef, granted in 1992, around the same time as Rosebel came alive, is one of several concessions currently affecting those previously flooded and destroyed Saramaka villages.
Unlike the N’djuka, the Saramaka people have not yet been asked to re-relocate. But they were not informed of the mining either.
"I did not know anything about the concessions until we started to see people putting small flags in the ground in my village. They were from Canada. Later I saw a map and it showed that all of my villages are in a concession," remarked Head Captain Eddie Fonkie of the Abaisa clan of the Saramaka people in a 2007 court testimony against GSR.
Fonkie speaks sadly of his fellow villagers in Nieuw Koffiekamp.
"A few years ago the company and the government told them that they would have to move because they were on the gold. Some of the people there had to move when the dam was built. The Gaama [Tribal leader] asked me to talk with them about moving, but because I still have pain in my heart from when we all had to move before, I did not want to do this.
"Maybe one day someone will tell us that they [we] have to move again because we are on top of a gold mine, like what happened with the N’djuka... We worry about this all the time and especially when we see those little flags that the Canadians put in the ground."
In 2007 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) issued the Saramaka People’s Decision against GSR, an unprecedented and binding decision for Suriname; the case recognized the right of a non-indigenous minority group to the natural resources within its lands. The decision means that Indigenous and Tribal people now have the legal right to prior and ongoing consent when it comes to the use of their lands.
The difference in policy is complicated, ambiguous, and operates on a case-by-case basis, at times offering compensation or "benefit-sharing."
When asked if the IACHR ruling has affected mining practices in Suriname for the better, an FPP member laughed bitterly, as though such questions were a mere formality.
In case there was ever any doubt, Fonkie points out what everyone in his villages already knows:
"Mining has brought very few benefits and many problems. What we need is security. If they mine here the people in the city and in Canada will benefit and the Saramaka will lose again.”
Maya Rolbin-Ghanie grew up in the woods and hopes to make it back there at some point. She currently studies life and works from Montreal.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.