Maroons of Suriname

Alternative names: Bush negroes
Location: interior and east Suriname
Population: 40,000
% of population: 10%
Religion: indigenous beliefs
Language: Dutch creole

The Maroons, also known locally as bush negroes, are the descendants of African slaves who fled slavery to found a separate and distinct society in the interior jungles. They form about 10% of the total population of Suriname but are, with the Amerindians, the poorest and most marginal sector of society. During the mid-1980s they became the chief victims in a counter-insurgency war fought between government and rebels.

Although the Dutch acquired the area of Suriname from the English in 1667, it was not until 1686 that they effectively controlled the coastal area, in the process driving the indigenous Amerindians deep into the interior. The Dutch then imported African slaves to work a plantation economy based on sugar, cocoa and coffee. From the late seventeenth century over 300,000 Africans were captured and transported to Suriname to a form of slavery which was especially harsh even by the standards of the age. Large numbers of slaves managed to escape to the central jungles where they joined earlier colonies of escapees. There they built a unique Afro-American culture and society with its social and political systems based on their original homelands of west Africa and which was self-sufficient through hunting and agriculture. They used the jungles as a base in their continuing guerrilla war for freedom and in 1760, after several unsuccessful military campaigns by the Dutch, Maroons signed the Treaty of Ouca with the plantation owners of the coast, which guaranteed their autonomy. They thus became the first peoples of the Americas to gain independence from colonial control.

For over two centuries the Maroons have retained their distinctive identity based on their West African origins and desire for isolation. Traditional social organization is strong. They are organized in six main groups, with tribal leaders called Granmans, village leaders called Captains and priests who communicate with forest-dwelling spirits. After the abolition of slavery in 1863 they continued to live in their own communities and distinguished themselves from the former slaves, the Creoles. They visited and communicated with the outside world but on their own terms. International borders, until recently, have meant little; one group of Maroons, the Aluku (also called Boni) live in French Guiana and there have been constant contacts between Maroons in both countries. Until the recent conflict most Maroons continued to live in the eastern interior areas; some have moved to work as labourers in Paramaribo or in bauxite settlements. But all keep contact with the tribe and village. Some of those living in the villages receive salaries and recognition from the government because of their roles within the tribal governments.

After independence in 1975 Suriname was governed as a parliamentary democracy until its overthrow by a military coup in 1980 led by Sergeant (later Lt. Col.) Desi Bourterse. Meanwhile discontent among the Maroons had grown, partly from resentment of the domination by the Creole military and partly because of plans to remove them from the jungles and settle them in towns. Traditional treaty rights allowing for political, cultural and religious freedoms were ignored and the government tried to impose “people’s committees” in their place. It has also been reported that Bourterse made derogatory remarks against Maroons, threatening to kill and bomb them.

A small group of men, many of whom were Maroons, and led by a former bodyguard of Bourterse, Roony Brunswijk, formed the “Junglecommand”, a poorly equipped guerrilla group of about 100 men. In July 1986 it attacked three government military posts and followed this with a series of victories and by the end of the year it was in command of most of eastern Suriname. The government forces retaliated and in the ensuing months the Maroons were the main victims of a series of government massacres, individual murders, attacks, detentions and har-assments. Food supplies were also disrupted. As a result from late 1986 over 10,000 Maroons and Amerindians fled to French Guiana while others left for a precarious safety in Paramaribo.

The refugees placed serious strains on the infrastructure of French Guiana (total population about 90,000 including illegal immigrants) and its already strained relations with Suriname.

The French government would not recognize the Maroons as refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention but described them as “displaced persons”. They did however provide them with food, shelter and medical care, which was supplemented by relief agencies, while in late 1988 UNHCR was allowed to open a local office to assist the refugees. UNHCR was also allowed to open an office in Paramaribo.

At the beginning of 1988 democratic parliamentary government was restored in Suriname. Both the new government and the Junglecommand indicated their desire for a cease-fire and a negotiated peace, along with the voluntary return of all refugees. A church group acted as an intermediary and in June 1988 the two groups signed a document known as the Protocols of St Jean in which specific proposals were made to withdraw troops and demilitarize certain areas. The proposals were not implemented, perhaps because of opposition from the Surinamese military, and in August 1988 the army began further operations against the Junglecommand. These failed and an uneasy stalemate followed.

A further attempt at conciliation occurred in June 1989 when representatives of the parliament and Junglecommand met and agreed on a programme to terminate hostilities. The Portal Agreement provided for, among other things, the lifting of the state of emergency in the eastern region, the safe return of refugees and the providing of financial, material and administrative aid for Maroon and Amerindian communities. An appendix also detailed further demands of the Junglecommand which related to the minority rights of the Maroons, such as the withdrawal of all armed forces from Maroon traditional territory, the incorporation of the Junglecommand into the civil, police and economic reconstruction forces, and the decentralization of Suriname into autonomous regions. However, to date, the agreement has to be implemented and there are doubts as to the commitment of both the Surinamese Army and some factions of the Junglecommand to comply with its provisions. In addition refugees are reluctant to return while the Surinamese army occupies the eastern regions.

(See also Afro-Brazilians; Afro-Cubans; East Indians of the Caribbean)