Suriname’s Indigenous community “continue to hope and believe” despite devastation from COVID-19

The nine Indigenous cultures recognized in Suriname represent only four percent of the country’s population of 586,000 people. Including the Lokono ethnic group, who primarily live near coasts and rivers. Photo: Adobe/Rene

Captain Theodorus Jubitana was born in a small village Tapoeripa in Nickerie District, Suriname, on 10 April 1965. He was the ninth of 11 children in a Lokono family and grew up in a modest home. He involved himself in local politics, was a tireless campaigner for Suriname’s Indigenous community, and eventually became chairperson of the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders, and leader of the Amazon Party Suriname. He was a husband, father to six children and a much-loved pillar of his community.

In July, Captain Theo died from COVID-19, one of more than 650 people lost to the pandemic in Suriname.

Including the Lokono ethnic group, the nine Indigenous cultures recognized in Suriname represent only four percent of the country’s population of 586,000 people. However, so far, despite efforts to protect them from the pandemic, they have accounted for more than 15 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

While there is limited socio-economic data on the Indigenous communities of Suriname, as in many other countries, they are more likely to face privation and poverty, and COVID-19 has painfully exposed this inequality.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the captain sounded his concern that not enough was being done to protect Indigenous communities. “The villages were in turmoil, the entrances were barricaded and people were selectively let in and out,” he said. “It was worth investigating to know how people experience this in the villages.”

Local communities often gather for special events, celebrations and to discuss important issues, as seen in Village Matta, Suriname. Photo: VIDS

Captain Theo helped UNDP organize a rapid COVID-19 socio-economic impact assessment, the first of its kind among the Indigenous people in Suriname. The assessment goes some way to addressing the critical lack of data on indigenous communities and was unique because it used digital systems for gathering information.

The study found that the pandemic has exacerbated unemployment rates, poverty and exclusion. Forty-three percent of Indigenous households have lost income since the pandemic started, and the price of food, hygiene supplies and transportation has increased.

Besides worsening the poverty faced by these communities, in a practical sense this economic downturn is inflaming the risk of infection, with 43 percent of Indigenous people also saying they have found it difficult to obtain hygiene items such as sanitizers and masks. Unregulated migration fueled by illegal mining has also been a potential risk behind the spread of the virus.

Although the government is working hard to reduce inequality in Suriname, entrenched exclusion is also playing a part in spreading the disease. Almost half of Indigenous household heads do not speak Dutch, the official language, which presents challenges for raising awareness about COVID-19 protection. This is exacerbated by low digital literacy and poor access to devices such as smart phones and computers. The lack of internet and electricity is also disproportionately affecting Indigenous children, who have had to rely on remote learning during the pandemic. Many Indigenous homes do not receive television and radio.

Children sing the national anthem in Arowaks, an Indigenous language, in Village Matta, Suriname. Photo: VIDS

“We are getting the feeling that it is the Indigenous communities in particular that are ‘forgotten’, and worse, are stigmatized, without any government protection, not even providing information in the villages,” said one Indigenous official.

A UNDP assessment indicates that 55 percent of Indigenous households say their top need is now health, with 25 percent say it is food security. Most households said they would like food assistance.

The data we collected revealed an urgent need to support government efforts to improve food security, access to healthcare (including personal protective equipment), health insurance, sanitation, education, and employment opportunities for indigenous communities struggling with COVID-19. There needs to be a long-term strategy that addresses exclusion and ensures Indigenous people are included in policy making by giving their representatives a voice in designing the COVID-19 response and other policies. Indigenous languages must be accommodated in this process and specialist agencies established to facilitate indigenous development.

These are some of the lessons from Suriname that may be useful to other countries with Indigenous populations dealing with the pandemic.

We must remember that in almost every country, indigenous people face higher rates of poverty and acute socio-economic disadvantages. More than 70 percent of the world’s population lives in a country with rising income and wealth inequality, and these are being aggravated by COVID-19, which is not just affecting human health, but is also aggravating structural inequalities, increasing poverty, and creating even bigger challenges for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. High levels of inequality hurt the poorest the most. And in many countries, this includes Indigenous communities.

Captain Theo’s fight against these inequalities remains a central part of his legacy.

With his passing, we have not only lost a champion of Indigenous rights, but also a good comrade who was open to new innovative ideas and approaches. I experienced him as a person who was always ready to discuss not only socio-economic issues, but also matters related to sustainable use of the environment and local politics. But what I find very striking is that that he could easily move between the traditional Indigenous to modern global world view and always has a clearly formulated opinion on regional and global matters.

By Anila Qehaja, Information Management Officer, SURGE Data Hub, UNDP Crisis Bureau and Ruben Martoredjo, Programme Associate, UNDP Suriname

Read the full assessment.

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