Case of the Saramaka People v. Suriname

Application to challenge the granting of logging and mining concessions within the traditional territory of a tribal community; Violations of the rights to the use and enjoyment of the territory; Right to communal property, Right to Judicial Personality in relation to the right to property; Right to judicial protection, all in relation to the obligations to respect, ensure and give domestic legal effect to the rights of the American Convention on Human Rights.

Date of the Ruling: 
Nov 28 2007
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Type of Forum: 

The Saramaka people, descendants of self-liberated African slaves, have been living on their traditional territory in Suriname since the early 1700s. This non-indigenous community lives in a traditional way by fishing, hunting and woodworking, and their relationship with the land is more than economic, but also spiritual and cultural. In 1986, Suriname adopted a new Constitution specifying that all non-titled lands and natural resources belonged to the State. In the 1990's, Suriname granted logging and mining concessions to private companies within the traditional Saramaka people’s territory without consultation or their consent.

In 2000, the petitioners complained to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and argued that, despite the fact that they were not in possession of a title for the territory, they had the right to use and possess the territory for their cultural, religious and economic activities. The case went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2006. The Court decided that although the Saramakas were not an indigenous community, they had certain resemblances with traditional indigenous communities and therefore enjoyed the same rights. As a consequence, they did not need a title in order to own the lands (possession was sufficient). The Court found a violation of articles 3 (Judicial Personality), 21 (Right to Property) and 25 (Right to Judicial Protection) of the American Convention of Human Rights in relation with articles 1.1 and 2 (obligations to respect, ensure and to give domestic legal effect of those rights). It asked Suriname to “delimit, demarcate and grant a collective title over the territory of the members of the Saramaka people, in accordance with their customary laws, and through previous, effective and fully informed consultations” and to abstain from acts that might affect the territory until such delimitation, demarcation and titling were completed. The Court also requested the State to review all concessions already granted.  In addition the State was required to give the Saramakas legal recognition of their collective judicial capacity and to adopt the legislative and other measures to recognize and ensure the community’s property rights, the right to be effectively consulted, and to provide effective recourses against violations of their rights.  Finally, the Court also ordered Suriname to pay compensation to the community, and to translate and broadcast relevant sections of the judgment.

Key words: Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Property, non-indigenous community, Suriname, Saramaka, Forest Peoples Programme

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

The judgment of the Inter-American Court has been partially implemented. Costs and expenses were reimbursed to Forest Peoples Programme and the Association of Saramaka Authorities. The fund ordered by the Court for the community has been created by Suriname, but the amount deposited fell short of what was provided for in the Judgment. Also, doubts about the availability of those funds for the community remain. Finally, the judgment has been translated and published as asked by the Court. 

However, the most important measures concerning new legislation and other measures to ensure no further human rights violations, as well as granting of title have not yet been realised, according to compliance monitoring done by the Court in 2011. In addition, Suriname has continued to grant new concessions within the Saramaka community's territory since the judgment was rendered. In 2012, the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination communicated to Suriname its concern for the lack of implementation of the most essential parts of the Judgement.  In 2013 the Court requested Suriname to submit a full report regarding a concession granted to IAMGOLD to determine if it complied with the Judgement.  The Court rejected provisional measures filed in favor of Saramaka leader and the territory, but continues to supervise the full implementation of its decision.

Groups involved in the case: 

Forest Peoples Programme

Association of Saramaka Authorities


Significance of the Case: 

For the first time, the Court ruled that a non-indigenous community like the Saramakas can enjoy "indigenous rights" if they share some characteristics (spiritual relations with the land, distinct culture, language, traditions, etc.) and considered as a tribal community protected by the international law. In this case, the Saramakas were thus entitled to the recognition of their communal property. The Court once again confirmed the existence of a right to property in some circumstances even if there is no official title.

Finally, in line with its previous case-law, the Court established a link between the land and the survival of a tribe or a community when the land is used for economic, cultural, social and religious activities.

Last updated on March 2014.