The small country of Suriname is nestled on the northeast coast of South America, atop Brazil’s northern border. Once a colony of the Netherlands, it did not become a sovereign state until 1975. Today it is often referred to as the greenest country in the world, with 93% forest cover and some of the most well-preserved stretches of rainforest in all of Amazonia. The remote interior of the country is home to diverse indigenous and tribal Maroon communities, descendants of enslaved peoples who fled the Dutch plantations for the forest. These communities have been fighting for collective land rights for decades, as Suriname is the only country in tropical South America that does not recognize indigenous or tribal collective land rights.
Currently, Suriname is at the center of ACT’s long-term transnational initiative to establish a 30-million-hectare biocultural corridor across the northeast Amazon rainforest—one that would be managed by indigenous peoples with the official recognition and collaboration of national governments. The corridor would cover the eastern Guiana Shield, whose boundaries encompass the southern reaches of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, crossing into northern Brazil. In Suriname, the fundamental challenge is that it has no official land use planning or zoning, let alone protection for the territories of indigenous and Maroon peoples. However, due to recent political interest and momentum around these topics, the formal recognition of indigenous environmental management and collective land rights for indigenous and Maroon peoples could soon become a reality.
Protecting biodiversity, tropical forests, and ancestral territory.
- Collective Land Rights and Indigenous-Led Environmental Management: For indigenous peoples, territory is essential to cultural and physical wellbeing - intricately linked to food production, medicine, and spirituality. Beyond being core to indigenous identities and ways of life, forests are better protected when under indigenous management, oftentimes having lower rates of deforestation than national parks. ACT is working at the grassroots level with indigenous and Maroon communities, and at the institutional level with regional and national governments, to secure recognition of indigenous-led environmental management and collective land rights.
- Amazon Conservation Rangers (ACRs): ACT trains indigenous and Maroon community members who carry out environmental monitoring in the forest surrounding their villages. We construct and support stations where the ACRs can track biodiversity, environmental pressures, and water quality with the latest tools and satellite imagery. This data helps the communities act quickly when crises arise, such as incursions by illegal miners, and informs decisions on territorial management. As of 2022, there are 39 active rangers across eight villages. ACT is working to ensure their recognition by the government and integrate their program and monitoring practices into national systems.
- Biocultural Mapping: Since 1999, ACT has facilitated the creation of biocultural maps with indigenous and Maroon partner communities. This cartographic tool, developed by the communities themselves, records their history, biological resources, and knowledge of their territory — and helps carry this knowledge to the next generation. These maps also document the extent of their territory and are a critical resource in advocating for themselves with outside entities. We have helped our partner communities map approximately 10 million hectares, about two-thirds of the country’s area.
Improving physical health, food sovereignty, basic community infrastructure, and economic security to ensure collective well-being and territorial permanence.
- Sustainable Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs): The production and sale of environmentally sustainable NTFPs generates income to improve the economic security of indigenous communities in the remote interior of Suriname. These projects are critical for indigenous communities that are integrated into the cash economy, who otherwise might have no choice but to turn to work with destructive extractive industries to make a living. ACT promotes income-generating projects in southern Suriname that produce hot peppers, wild herbal tea, honey and medicinal propolis, and jewelry - which provide supplementary income that oftentimes exceed the national average in the interior of the country.
- Solar Energy: Without access to reliable forms of clean energy, many communities in the remote Amazon must rely on gas-powered generators, which negatively impact human health and local environments, and demand unreliable and expensive fuel deliveries. ACT installs sustainable solar energy systems in interior Surinamese villages and trains community members on their use and maintenance
Supporting self-determination, human rights, and indigenous cultural recovery and revitalization.
- Community Life Plans: Through the development of a Life Plan, a community envisions their collective future, and builds consensus around topics such as territorial management, preservation of cultural knowledge and traditions, healthcare, and education. The resulting document is an essential tool not only for internal governance and decision-making, but also for advocacy and partnerships with government agencies and the private sector. Inspired by the success of such plans in Colombia and Brazil, ACT is currently introducing and supporting the creation of Life Plans with Trio communities in southern Suriname.
- Traditional Medicine Clinics and the Shamans & Apprentices Program: Part of the founding work of ACT, the Shamans and Apprentices Program commenced in 1997, and the first associated traditional medicine clinic was constructed in 1999. These initiatives seek to preserve the transmission and ongoing practice of indigenous medicine, based on healers’ encyclopedic knowledge of local flora. To that end, ACT helps record indigenous medicine practices in the local indigenous language to produce community books. We also sponsor apprenticeships where young people can learn from community shamans, and build traditional medicine clinics where these indigenous health practices can continue to be administered, complementary to Western clinics run by the state-authorized Medische Zending. ACT currently supports five active traditional medicine clinics in Suriname.