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The much anticipated conference on territorial rights in Suriname was unexpectedly cut short after a thundering speech of Amerindian captain Ricardo (Carlo) Lewis, boardmember of the Association of Indigenous Village heads in Suriname (VIDS), that left the two main parties, the government and tribal peoples, to conclude that the divide between them was too deep to cross.
The conference marked the first serious attempt in Suriname to bring a solution to the decades old dispute over the ownership and use of inland territories. Amerindians and Maroons armed themselves with the 2007 verdict of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights which dictates their rights to land; a ruling that is largely based on treaties signed in the 18th century. Although the new government, presided by Desi Bouterse, has demonstrated willingness to discuss conditional ownership of land, it refuses to bend on full ownership. Citing the constitution of Suriname, the government insists that the country’s territories, including their natural resources, ‘cannot be divided’. All territories and natural resources are, by constitution, property of the state. It is upon this right that the government of Suriname is issuing concessions for the mining of gold and bauxite as well as for wood logging.
The October 21/22 conference took a year of preparation and cost around 2 million Surinamese dollars (the equivalent of about 600.000 US). The government chose to rent off vacation resort Colakreek for the full two days of the weekend summit, and compiled a list of some 700 attendees, among whom members of government and parliament, inland dignitaries and representatives of non-governmental organizations. A legion of security officers, firefighters, soldiers, paramedics and police officers was summoned to see to the proper channeling of proceedings. The intention of the summit was to find common ground and sign a joint closing statement that could serve as the blueprint for new regulations regarding the inland territories.
In a press conference following the failed conference, president Bouterse expressed disappointment at the tribal leaders, whom he accused of manipulation. Bouterse said he had not expected them to demand full land rights, including authority over everything that is located on and in the ground. Two of his aides, Ellen Naarendorp and Jennifer van Dijk-Silos, who helped organize the event, concurred that the tribal representatives never indicated the full extent of their demand in the months leading up to Colakreek.
Critics call Bouterse and his assistants ‘naive’ for not having been able to predict the outcome of the meeting. As writes Edgar Mampier on the opinion blog Suriname Stemt: “Naarendorp states that during the preparation phase separate meetings have been held with all groups. These must have been very strange encounters for the authority over natural resources not to have come up. It’s sheer impossible.”
During the summit, Carlo Lewis’s speech received a standing ovation and cheers from the majority of the tribal representatives, at which point both parties recognized the irreconcilability of their differences. Bouterse thereupon decided to close down the conference.
The debate on territorial rights now moves on to parliament. Here, votes will be called for the acceptance into law of the demands of the tribal leaders. Their demands are included in a resolution between tribal groups that was signed after the closure of the summit. (Click here for the original Dutch text of this resolution)