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Rainforest Warriors

Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial

Richard Price
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Rainforest Warriors
    Book Description:

    Rainforest Warriors is a historical, ethnographic, and documentary account of a people, their threatened rainforest, and their successful attempt to harness international human rights law in their fight to protect their way of life-part of a larger story of tribal and indigenous peoples that is unfolding all over the globe. The Republic of Suriname, in northeastern South America, contains the highest proportion of rainforest within its national territory, and the most forest per person, of any country in the world. During the 1990s, its government began awarding extensive logging and mining concessions to multinational companies from China, Indonesia, Canada, and elsewhere. Saramaka Maroons, the descendants of self-liberated African slaves who had lived in that rainforest for more than 300 years, resisted, bringing their complaints to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 2008, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights delivered its landmark judgment in their favor, their efforts to protect their threatened rainforest were thrust into the international spotlight. Two leaders of the struggle to protect their way of life, Saramaka Headcaptain Wazen Eduards and Saramaka law student Hugo Jabini, were awarded the Goldman Prize for the Environment (often referred to as the environmental Nobel Prize), under the banner of "A New Precedent for Indigenous and Tribal Peoples." Anthropologist Richard Price, who has worked with Saramakas for more than forty years and who participated actively in this struggle, tells the gripping story of how Saramakas harnessed international human rights law to win control of their own piece of the Amazonian forest and guarantee their cultural survival.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0372-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Africans Discover America

    • (pp. 3-26)

      In the middle of the seventeenth century, Suriname, in northeastern South America, formed part of a vast forested area that stretched from the Atlantic to the Andes, the home of countless indigenous peoples who lived by hunting, fishing, and gardening.¹ The first European colonists, Englishmen from Barbados who sailed over with their African slaves in 1651, soon ceded the area to the Dutch (in the famous 1667 swap in which the Dutch traded Manhattan to the English in return for Suriname), and the colony became one of the most profitable of all slave plantation societies in the Americas. By the...

  2. Earth, Water, Sky

    • (pp. 29-40)

      We first came near the great dam at Afobaka in August 1996, as we ended our sweaty, bumpy several-hour journey in the back of a truck from Paramaribo and transferred our gear, covered with red-brown bauxite dust, to a waiting Suriname government motor canoe for the several-day trip upriver.² But it was only as the two Saramaka boatmen pointed the slim craft out into the artificial lake that we saw, looking back, the immensity of the construction, the broad sweep of concrete in between hundreds of meters of high-packed red earth, looming out of the fetid water.³

      At last we...

    • (pp. 41-54)

      The several-billion-dollar French rocket project in French Guiana dwarfed the nearly contemporary Dutch dam-building in Suriname. In the late 1960s, when we were living far up the Suriname River, fully half of the men from the surrounding villages were off in Kourou, at the site of the future space center, earning money to buy goods to bring back home after a couple of years of wage-labor. During an official visit to French Guiana in 1964, President De Gaulle had announced that “a great French project, which will be known worldwide”² would soon begin there, and in the months that followed,...

  3. Sovereignty and Territory

    • (pp. 57-82)

      On our first trip to Saramaka in 1966, after we had slept on that island near Mamádan rapids, our canoemen (lent by the district commissioner) stopped at Abénasitónu, one of the first villages above the lake. We were made to wait there for three days, based in the schoolteacher’s house—it was summer vacation and he was absent—while the Saramaka boatmen went upriver to the village of Asindóópo to ask Gaamá Agbagó formal permission to bring whitefolks into Saramaka territory. Only on the fourth day, when the boatmen had returned with permission to proceed, were we able to continue...

    • (pp. 83-103)

      The civil war that lasted from 1986 to 1992 provided city folks with a splendid opportunity to act on their long-standing prejudices against Maroons. In 1987 a U.S. human rights investigator reported that “several sources allege that the Surinamese Government is not merely seeking to crush the rebels, but that it is committing genocide against the Maroons,” and that military strongman Desi Bouterse, in radio broadcasts, “shamed all Maroons … threatened to ‘kill all of you’ and to ‘find your planting grounds and bomb them.’”¹ “Ultimate responsibility for the civil war lies squarely with the national army led by Commander...

    • (pp. 104-112)

      In 1997, in the chill of a misty morning deep in the Amazonian rainforest, Silvi Adjako was bending over her peanut plants, quietly singing to herself. Suddenly, she heard strange rumblings in the distance. Frightened, she walked back to her village and told her uncle César, the village captain. With two other men, César went to have a look, but the path to the gardens was blocked by gun-slinging soldiers from the Suriname army who told them that the land now belonged to the Chinese, whom they could barely make out through the trees behind the soldiers, riding great earth-moving...

  4. Resistance Redux

    • (pp. 115-131)

      Within weeks of the first Tacoba incursions into their territory in 1996/1997, a group of Saramaka leaders had created a formal association—the Association of Saramaka Authorities (Vereniging van Saramakaanse Gezagsdragers, hereafter VSG)¹—to educate their communities about land rights and to fight against the foreign loggers. The initial impetus came from the three largest villages lying within a few hours’ canoe travel from the lake—Pikísééi (home of the Dómbi clan), and Tutúbúka and Guyába (both home to the Awanás). Headcaptain Wazen Eduards, from the village of Pikísééi, and Hugo Jabini from the village of Tutúbúka, a law student...

    • (pp. 132-144)

      Even as the IACHR was deliberating the case of The Saramaka People (or The 12 Lôs) v. Suriname, other kinds of evidence were piling up from international organizations that Suriname was not taking human rights, and especially the rights of the indigenous and Maroon peoples living within its borders, at all seriously. A sixty-eight-page report submitted in 2002 by three Suriname organizations—the VSG, the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname, and Stichting Sanomaro Esa—as well as the Forest Peoples Programme to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples,...

  5. Judgment Day

    • (pp. 147-152)

      In the eleven months between the Commission’s submitting its “Application” to the Court, asking it “to determine the international responsibility of the State of Suriname … for violations committed by the State against the Saramaka people and its members,” and the climactic two-day hearing in San Jose, Costa Rica (9–10 May 2007), three documents passed between the Saramakas, the State, and the Court. In November 2006, the legal representatives of the Saramakas submitted a 62-page document entitled “Pleadings, Motions and Evidence.” In January 2007, Suriname responded with a 125-page document of its own (mainly arguing that the Court should...

    • (pp. 153-208)

      Early May. Men and women are packing their suitcases and readying their papers and laptops in Saramaka villages, Paramaribo, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York, and Amsterdam. In Suriname, those coming as part of the Saramaka delegation include Hugo Jabini, the Saramaka law student who has worked closely with the VSG from the outset; Headcaptain Wazen Eduards,¹ who has proved to be the most energetic of the Saramaka captains in organizing meetings and spreading news; Captain César Adjako, an older leader from a transmigration village who has been chosen in part to speak about the effects of the dam; and Gaamá...

    • (pp. 209-220)

      The Court’s Judgment of November 2007 begins with a disappointment for the Saramakas—their complaints about the ongoing effects of the Afobaka dam were ruled inadmissible.¹ It turns out that according to its own rules (as well as an apparently new rule adopted in the judgment), the Court depends on the Commission to determine the issues to be adjudicated, and in this case it found that the Commission, in its “Application” to the Court, had hardly mentioned the dam and then (the new part) only in its “factual” presentation, rather than in its legal arguments. The Court reasoned that since...

  6. American Dreams

    • (pp. 223-233)

      As I write this in the spring of 2010, Suriname has done little to abide by the Court’s judgment, other than to assert its good intentions. It has complied with the easiest of the rulings, paying the costs of the petitioners in preparing their case ($15,000 to the Forest Peoples Programme, $75,000 to the VSG). But, on the more serious measures—delimiting Saramaka territory and granting the Saramaka people collective title to it, changing domestic legislation to recognize the Saramaka people as a juridical personality, and placing $675,000 in a community development fund for the benefit of the Saramaka people—...

    • (pp. 234-240)

      The landmark nature of the Court’s judgment in The Saramaka People v. Suriname has been recognized by numerous observers and organizations. The U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues acknowledged the global significance of the case in praising the Court’s decision and particularly welcoming its reference to the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.¹ But several authorities on international law who have discussed the judgment have, in my view, not quite grasped its import.

      One legal scholar has claimed that this “is the first binding international decision to recognize tribal peoples’ rights to the natural resources located in...