In Court for the Indigenous Peoples of Suriname
Assistant Sociology Professor Sarah Augustine presented the case for regulating illegal mining in the country of Suriname at the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hearing in March. The hearing was the equivalent of a case in the United States being argued before the Supreme Court.
Augustine and her husband, Dr. Dan Peplow, who also teaches at Heritage, founded the nongovernmental organization Suriname Indigenous Health Fund (SIHF) in 2005. Since then, they have spent a decade working with the Wayana people to combat the negative impact that mining is having on the indigenous people of the southern rain forest and savannah regions of this small South American country.
According to Augustine, unregulated mining presents dire threats to the Wayana, including environmental degradation; mercury and arsenic contamination of the food and water supply brought on by the dumping of mine waste; and the disruption of traditional food-gathering activities such as hunting, fishing and subsistence agriculture. They are also threatened by the lack of access to quality basic education, a Suriname legal system that doesn’t recognize the right of indigenous peoples to own land, cultural extermination and government censorship.
“What’s been happening to the Wayana people is a tragedy, and the OAS must take immediate action to recommend that the government of Suriname provide food and water resources to the Wayana people immediately if they are to prevent their extinction. Remediation of the land and water supply will be necessary for the long term survival of the Wayana,” she said. Augustine and Peplow have been studying the Wayana community of Apetina on the Topanahoni River for ten years, performing community directed risk and health assessment studies with its members. Augustine and Peplow conducted their work as part of an international public health team. In 2010 the group worked with the University of Oklahoma Human Rights Clinic to contribute to both the official and the “shadow” human rights report to the United Nations as part of the Universal Periodic Review.
The issue has been documented by “Indigenous Suriname,” an independent film that has won several awards, including the United Nations Population Fund for the Caribbean region (2009), and the Latin American Video and Film Festival (2010), and has been accepted to the Smithsonian Native American Film and Video Festival (2011).
Augustine made several recommendations to improve conditions for the Wayana as afforded by the American Convention on Human Rights and other OAS treaties of which Suriname is a signatory. These include encouraging Suriname to regulate mining and prohibit mercury pollution, clean up waterways affected by mercury runoff, provide quality education to the interior areas of Suriname where the Wayana reside, and institute a system that recognizes collective land rights for indigenous peoples.
She urged the commission to visit the interior region of Suriname so they can witness for themselves the devastation caused by unregulated mining. “We believe they will be motivated to recommend changes to the Suriname government based on what they see,” said Augustine.
Augustine and Peplow are now waiting to hear what recommendations, if any, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will make to the Suriname government. Suriname leaders must comply with possible recommendations from the commission in order for Suriname to remain an OAS member in good standing.