Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 October 2015, 10:29 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Suriname : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 3 June 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Suriname : Overview, 3 June 2008, available at: [accessed 13 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated on 3 June 2008


Suriname, (a.k.a. Nederlands Guyana or Dutch Guiana) is located in northeastern South America. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, and shares borders on the east with French Guiana, on the west with the Republic of Guyana and on the south with Brazil. The country has an area of 163,265 sq km (63,037 sq mi). The southern part of the country along the border with Brazil consists of dense tropical rainforest and sparsely inhabited savanna.


Main languages: Dutch, Hindustani, Javanese, Sranan Tongo ('Negro English'), Chinese, English, French, Spanish, indigenous languages

Main religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, indigenous and African-derived religions

Main minority groups: East Indians 147,000 (37%), Creoles (31%) Javanese 65,000 (15%), Maroons 40,000 (8%) indigenous (Arawaks and Caribs) 14,600 (2%) ethnic Chinese (2%) and Europeans. Source: 2000 Census.

Suriname has a small indigenous population descended from the first inhabitants of the region. East Indians now form the largest group, constituting more than one-third of the total population, and Creoles, who are mainly of African descent, about another third. Another African-descended group, the Maroons or 'Bush Negroes', make up nearly 10 per cent and there are also ethnic Chinese, Europeans and Indonesian-descended Javanese who together account for about 15 per cent. Most indigenous people and Maroons live in the forest.


Suriname, was originally inhabited by many distinct indigenous groups such as the Taino (Arawak), Kali'nago (Carib), Warrau Wayana and Akurio. The Dutch arrived in 1581, entering into colonial competition with the English who began settling during the first half of the 17th century. The Dutch subsequently acquired present-day Suriname from the English in 1667, in the exchange for what is now New York City.

Dutch settler control of the Guiana coast caused the indigenous groups to retreat into the interior to avoid extinction. Colonial policy included practices like transporting a selection of indigenous people of Suriname to the 1883 International Colonial and Export Exhibition in Amsterdam and displaying them in human zoos.

Dutch traders were among the first to establish slave forts and castles on the coasts of Western Africa and imported and enslaved over 300,000 Africans in Suriname including many of Akan and Ashanti origin.

Plantation conditions were brutal, and life spans short. Many slaves escaped into the rainforests of Suriname to avoid the very harsh conditions. These Maroons (also known as 'Djukas' or 'Bakabusi Nengre') often returned to attack the settlements.

After a half century of guerrilla warfare against colonial and European troops the African Maroons signed treaties with the Dutch government in the 1760s, enabling them to live a virtually independent existence until well into the 20th century.

Maroon communities formed an effective buffer between the coastal European settlements and the indigenous groups of the interior and also contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of slavery.


The Dutch ended chattel slavery in 1863 but demanded obligatory but paid plantation labour from former slaves for another five years. Mostly Chinese labour was then imported from the Netherlands East Indies. Between 1873 and 1916 in an agreement with the British many East Indian labourers were also imported from north Indian states such as Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh (see also Guyana and Trinidad). After 1916 labourers especially from Java were again imported from the Netherlands East Indies, (today Indonesia)

Until the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1949, Suriname was ruled by a small group of wealthy Europeans and Creoles. Internal autonomy came in 1954 with an Electoral Act based on racially demarcated constituencies. Economic, cultural and linguistic factors already divided the ethnic groups; and this act encouraged ethnic divisions to extend into political organization.

In November 1975 Suriname was granted its independence by the Dutch Parliament. A number of people (approx. 40,000) chose to retain Dutch citizenship and immigrated to the Netherlands.

In 1986 the Surinamese Liberation Army (SLA), a group of Maroons who claimed that government resettlement policies threatened the autonomy of their society, began guerrilla activities against military posts on Suriname's eastern frontier. There were civilians deaths and 4,500 refugees fled to French Guiana.

In April 1990 France and Suriname agreed to provide for the repatriation of an estimated 10,000 Surinamese refugees from French Guiana. After alleged attempts at forcible repatriation some 6,000 refugees voluntarily returned.

Agreement was reached with the guerrilla movements in May 1992. Guerrillas were included in the amnesty previously extended to the military and the government promised that the interior would become a priority for social and economic development.


In 1987, the Front for Democracy and Development, which represents Javanese interests, won the elections and brought in a new constitution.

Legislation regarding indigenous peoples is still lacking. Some villages have titles to land but all ownership rights belong to the government. During the second half of the 1980s Taino (Arawaks), Kalinago (Caribs) and Wayanas were relocated by government and guerrilla forces.

The economy of Suriname is dominated by the bauxite industry, which accounts for 70 per cent of export earnings. Other main exports include sugar and wood products.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples


Suriname law affords no special protection for, or recognition of, indigenous people. Despite being acutely marginalized and significantly disadvantaged indigenous and Maroon groups continue to face limits in their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, traditions, and natural resources.

In addition to endemic discrimination, the majority of indigenous and Maroon groups live in the remote areas with limited or no government services whereas Suriname's political life, educational opportunities, and decision-making are all concentrated in the capital and along the coast.

Suriname Law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity. In practice Maroons and the indigenous populations continued to be discriminated against in the areas of, employment, education and access to government services.

In the interior zones limited infrastructure narrows Maroon and indigenous access to social services. In the urban areas approximately 85 per cent of the child population attends school; compared to as few as 50 per cent of children in the interior. Furthermore when Maroons and indigenous people relocate to the main cities like Paramaribo they suffer from social marginalization and negative stereotyping.

Land rights

Maroon and indigenous populations continue to face problems in their home areas with the invasion of illegal and uncontrolled logging and mining resource extraction ventures.

Illegal small-scale gold mining mainly by immigrant Brazilians, cut indigenous residents off from their agricultural areas. Foreign miners also threaten and intimidate aimed at driving them off their ancestral lands and away from traditional settlements. Furthermore mercury runoff from mining operations like the Gross Rosebel Goldmines Company seriously contaminate the environment in both short and long term and threaten traditional food source and productivity zones.

Suriname Indigenous Village Leaders (VIDS) therefore, are continuing to push for greater participation in decisions made with respect to mining and resource exploitation. This is also in light of proposed large-scale bauxite mining and other resource extraction initiatives in Western Suriname that will affect four Indigenous communities.

The affected ndigenous communities do not have collective land rights and have not been consulted about the mining plans. Moreover at least two are facing forcible relocation.

Their main objective is to ensure 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 resources 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 conservation minded 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 initial proposals.

Little attempt was made during early 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 park and to be legally recognized as such under the French constitution.

However France is not a signatory to ILO 169 and indigenous groups in French Guiana have existed under direct French socio-cultural rule since 1969. Traditional indigenous land claims are not recognized. Likewise 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.

It should be noted that while indigenous groups are apparently being driven out of the disputed area, the 1997 proposal also prohibited mining activities in the biologically rich zone. However due to the high gold bearing potential of the area, this clause was rejected by the government of French Guiana based on economic arguments.

Political representation

In light of the ongoing threats to their existence Maroon and indigenous groups such as Moiwana '86 have continued to cooperate with each other especially in the safeguarding traditional lands.

Indigenous and Maroon political parties successfully increased participation in in the May 2005 elections and led to a coalition which became part of the overall national governing process by obtaining three cabinet positions.

These developments increase their capacity to address large issues that affect their territories such as treaty rights, displacement policies and costly national joint ventures activities, including the possibility of mining bauxite and generating hydropower in the western part of Suriname.

Legal developments

In 2000 the Maroon organization Vereniging van Saramakaanse Gezagdragers filed a petition with the Inter American Court Of Human Rights (IACHR), which was heard during 2005.

In 2004 and 2005 The CERD addressed recommendations to Suriname regarding, disruptive resettlement policies and mining activities in maroon and indigenous areas.

In June 2005 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the government of Suriname guilty of human rights violations in the case involving the 1986 massacre of at least 39 civilians at the N'Djuka Maroon village of Moiwana and the intentional destruction of their property by a unit of the National Army. The IAHCR 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.

On November 28 2005, the Minister of Justice and Police indicated the government's acceptance of the verdict and intention to implement it. The first large-scale commemoration ceremony took place on November 30 2005 in Moiwana, and in December 2005 the government formed a commission to oversee proper execution of the court's orders. The attorney general also established a coordination team to investigate the massacre and other crimes committed by the security forces. Suriname is a full participating member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).

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