With a forest cover of 93%, Suriname is the most forested country on the globe. Its forests are home to five Indigenous Peoples, who have been living there since long before the country became occupied by Europeans. Next to the Indigenous Peoples, Suriname’s forests are populated by Maroon communities who mostly live along the rivers. They are descendants of enslaved Africans who fled the colonial Dutch plantations and established independent communities deep in the interior rainforests, where they could not be found. Today, there are a total of six Maroon Tribes, spread over hundreds of villages, making up almost 14% of the population. Both the Indigenous and Maroon communities depend on the forest for their food, medicines and construction material. Also, they are increasingly involved in commercial timber extraction.
All of Suriname’s forest land is state owned, but the government has been handing out community forest permits to Indigenous and Maroon communities, giving them the formal right to practice small-scale agriculture, collect non-timber forest products and harvest timber, for subsistence and commercial purposes. Although a community forest permit is usually issued for 10 years, it can be extended indefinitely, unless the community decides to withdraw. There are currently 140 community forests in Suriname, covering an area of about 800,000 hectares.
After receiving a permit, most communities get involved with commercial logging operators in one way or another, says Rudi van Kanten, who is the director of Tropenbos Suriname, and has been working in the Surinamese forestry sector for 17 years. Here he talks about the outcomes of community forest permits and the way forward.
What are the benefits of community forests?
First of all, receiving a community forest permit means that the government cannot grant conventional logging concessions to companies for these areas. So, the permit provides a community with the security that the forest will not be expropriated by outside actors. It is up to the community to decide whether or not they want to use the forest for commercial logging. In reality, most of them want to. Most forest dependent communities are poor, and interested in monetizing the standing timber that surrounds them. However, they often lack the resources to invest in necessary equipment such as chainsaws, skidders and trucks. To overcome this barrier, they sign contracts with logging companies, who do have the necessary resources. These companies then log the community forest, and pay a share to the community, per cubic meter of extracted timber. The money that comes in, is managed by a community-level committee, and is usually used for collective expenditures, such as the construction of a community building or a guest house.
Wouldn’t the benefits be much higher if the community would find a way to set up its own small-scale logging operations?
Yes, that is true in theory. But the capacity at the community level is low, while the costs are really high, so you will have to ask yourself whether this is a realistic ambition in the short term. Rather than trying to develop stand-alone community-based enterprises, I think it is more promising to develop better partnerships with companies. Partnerships based on principles of fair benefit sharing, transparency, and community involvement. Such partnerships help to build capacity within communities, and may eventually lead to independent operations.
A NEW CAR
The current agreements between communities and companies are still far from the ideal partnerships as envisioned by Van Kanten. Many community members complain that they are merely bystanders. This is because the contract with a commercial company is usually negotiated and signed by the village leader alone, with little or no involvement of other community members.
Are village leaders able to decide how the community forest is managed?
The government used to give out community forest permits in the name of individual village leaders, but since 2008, permits can only be awarded to a committee of three persons, which acts on behalf of the community. These committees were installed to prevent community leaders from taking advantage of contracts with logging companies. Although committee members are not elected, their nomination is usually agreed upon during a community-wide meeting, and they should thus represent the community as a whole. In practice, however, in many cases the village leaders remain in control. They can act fairly independently, and benefit economically from contracts signed with companies. The other villagers become suspicious when they suddenly see their village leader in a new car.
Can village leaders be held accountable?
It differs. Leaders of Indigenous communities are elected every three years, so community members are able to vote them out, if they are unhappy. Village leaders of Maroon communities, however, hold their position for life. Although village leaders are expected to consult with other members of the traditional authority, such as elders and the leaders of the whole Tribe, they may not always do so. The logging companies present options for a village leader’s private gain, and it is tempting for them to forego traditional decision-making processes. In this way, you can say it puts pressure on the traditional governance mechanisms.
What can be done about that?
The introduction of the money economy has thrown traditional decision-making systems off balance. They are no longer functioning as well as they used to. I believe there may be a need to find ways to modernize these traditional decision-making processes. Most importantly, they need to be made transparent, and there should be possibilities for checks and balances.
FROM PERMITS TO LAND RIGHTS
Although the Surinamese government grants permits to individual communities, it does not recognize formal land tenure rights to the areas that Indigenous Peoples and Maroon Tribes consider their traditional territories. Van Kanten suggests that one of the ways forward is to move towards formalization of overarching land rights for Indigenous and Maroon territories. Within these, the respective People or Tribe would be responsible for management decisions, within a broad regulatory framework set by the government.
What is the advantage of such territorial rights?
It would cover much wider areas, and would create possibilities for economies of scale. At the level of a territory, communities that belong to a People or a Tribe can work together to develop their own development trajectories and plans. For example, they may decide that some communities focus on timber harvesting, others on processing, medicinal plants, tourism, etcetera.
How realistic is this?
The new government of Suriname has announced that it will address the issue of territorial rights before the end of 2022 in order to guarantee the rights of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. At the same time the position of the traditional authorities will be regulated by law. Of course, local capacity could be a bottleneck. The capacity for timber harvesting, processing and trade will need to be developed in fair partnerships with certain companies. Traditional authorities will be in charge of territory-wide governance, but there is a huge role for CSOs to assist them with setting up transparent decision-making processes, and building capacity in terms of administration and planning, and developing alternative income-earning opportunities, such as tourism and carbon trade. This should ensure that Suriname’s forests are used in a sustainable way to benefit the people who have been living there for generations.