Struggles in Suriname: Learning from Namati’s Community Land Rights Database

In January 2016, a headline grabbed me. After several months of volunteering with Namati’s Community Land Rights CaseBase, I came across news of an important legal victory for indigenous land rights in Suriname, a country I knew virtually nothing about. I had been collecting case law concerning community and indigenous land rights from across Latin America, many of which are high profile cases from countries well represented in global land rights debates, such as Brazil and Ecuador. Now, I found myself pulled into a small and underreported corner of the region by a story that was too compelling – and concerning – to ignore: the long and ongoing land rights struggles of the Kaliña, Lokono, and Saramaka peoples…

Read about the land rights struggles and what can be learned from analysis of these two precedent setting legal cases from Suriname, both of which are featured in Namati’s Community Land Rights CaseBase.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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Thank you for reporting on these cases and this insightful analysis, @dorianmartinez! Are there other important or compelling cases from Latin America that you’ve reviewed as part of the CaseBase that you would recommend to anyone interested in community land protection efforts in the region or beyond?

Thanks for your reply @marenabrinkhurst! Yes, there are a few key cases arising from the Inter-American human rights system that demonstrate its progressive role in the protection of community land rights. The Mayagna (Sumo) Community of Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua case decided in 2001 became the first international judgment to recognize communal property rights of indigenous peoples and to mandate a State to protect those rights. To the best of my knowledge, it is the also the only Inter-American Court decision regarding indigenous peoples’ land rights whose orders have been fully implemented by the State party. The judgment of the Saramaka case described in the article above represents a significant advance since it established the existence of tribal peoples’ communal property rights in the same way as they apply to indigenous peoples. The Yakye Axa Indigenous Community v. Paraguay case is interesting because it deals with instances of historic dispossession of land suffered by indigenous peoples and how to balance their claims with those of present landowners. More recently, the series of Belize Maya cases dealt with the notion of indigenous title being terminated upon the assertion of sovereignty by a colonial power, with the Maya communities involved being supported in their claims to communal property rights by both the Inter-American Court and the Caribbean Court of Justice. All of the above are available on Casebase if anyone would like to find out more, with SATIIM v. Attorney General of Belize representing one of the Maya cases just described.

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A great article Dorian. The situation of non-implementation of decisions from international bodies is an unfortunately common one it seems. The Saramaka case that you describe is similar to the Endorois decision in Kenya (2010) where the government drags its feet in implementation. There the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights similarly sanctioned the State for its failure to implement the decision and yet this has done little to prompt the government to action.

Different than the Saramaka case though is the Kenyan government’s position on minority rights and environmental protection. Unlike Suriname, Kenya is not looking to court environmental protection, rather it is at the heart of environmental protection, especially within the global south. Nairobi is home to UNEP and the Constitution itself (Art. 69(1)(b) enshrines the principle of returning at least ten percent of the country’s land to tree cover. Furthermore, Kenya recognizes customary tenure claims to land based on ancestral occupation and use (though the extent to which customary claims supersede legal claims is debatable). Despite this vast framework that presumably would support implementation, the Endorois actually face threats from the government in controlling their ancestral land. The government, in pursuit of environmental protection, sought to designate the land as protected under UNESCO. Having been approved of this status, the government is able to profit from tourism of the area while also relying upon the designation as a reason to not return the land to the Endorois.

I am bringing up the Endorois example for a number of reasons:

  1. To bring attention to the issue of non-implementation of international decisions by state actors is a problem across the globe.
  2. To point out the need for alternative international levers to be utilized in a careful manner so as not to empower governments looking to avoid international obligations.
  3. And to advocate for more legal research into whether domestic courts are taking up these principles of international law, as domestic court decisions are more likely to be implemented or at least not rejected out of hand by governments making a sovereignty argument.