With capacity development, an indigenous community in Suriname gains skills, leaders to defend its Amazon territory

January 19, 2023
A GPS training with the Tepu community. Credit: VIDS

Throughout the Amazon basin, indigenous peoples are an essential component to safeguard the region’s sustainability and future. Many Amazon territories are under the jurisdiction of the reservations and lands that belong to indigenous peoples.

For the inhabitants of the town of Pëlëlu Itëpu, in Suriname, it has been difficult to build alliances that allow them to continue defending their territory and improving their quality of life. Even to get the support of the government, they need to ring the bell more than once, so to speak. 

To counter this, the people of Pëlëlu Itëpu receive support from the SCIOA program, led by Pact and funded by USAID. SCIOA came to the village of Tepu through the local organization VIDS (The Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname), to contribute to the efforts, ideas and dreams of the town. This is the first time this community has participated in a development project funded by international cooperation, and the residents have witnessed several changes, ranging from progress on long-stalled initiatives to the training of community members.

A key part of this story is Jossmet Shanaupe, 21, who is the newest employee of the VIDS office. The young man, originally from the village of Tepu, is being trained by George Awankaroe who oversees geographic information systems at VIDS and who in recent months has guided Jossmet's learning process. Jossmet has acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to understand how global positioning systems (GPS) work. 

“Jossmet is a very good, inquisitive and creative student. He is quick in learning new things,” Awankaroe says.

With this new knowledge, Jossmet is an essential part of the implementation of the SCIOA project in Pëlëlu Itëpu, because the community determined in a participatory decision process that they needed to demarcate their territory. This process will allow the community to better defend their rights and the legal autonomy of their territories, which belong to them as the original peoples of the region.

On the left, a GPS training session. On the right, Jossmet Shanaupe and George Awankaroe. Credit: VIDS

“I was surprised that VIDS offered such a training. I did not know anything about GPS and GIS,” Jossmet says.

It is important to note that the Pëlëlu Itëpu area was previously demarcated more than 10 years ago, but the community never received the final data. Tired of waiting for this information and with the support of the SCIOA project, the residents of Pëlëlu Itëpu are preparing for the demarcation of indigenous areas under the direction of VIDS and with the support of Jossmet.

The residents are proud of this process, since the demarcation is a communal dream that had been stalled. Now they feel they are going to achieve it, and the community has technical knowledge that allows them to expand their area of influence, giving them the ability to understand and take ownership of this long-awaited process. VIDS has been seeking additional resources for the demarcation of the entire territory that the Tepu community traditionally inhabits and uses. There, in a counterpart process, Nia Tero, a global organization that supports indigenous peoples, arranged funds so that their territory can be demarcated up to the eastern border.

For the Amazonian indigenous peoples of Suriname, the demarcation of their territories is of vital importance, as they face threats such as deforestation and illegal mining. Demarcating the land collectively strengthens the bonds of unity of all indigenous peoples. In an agreement that was led by the head of the Pëlëlu Itëpu community, who met with the grandparents of the sister indigenous communities that share living areas, all attendees pledged their full support to the Tepu leader and the demarcation project supported by SCIOA.

Initiatives like these allow them to strengthen their leadership and to be at the forefront of solving challenges, which will undoubtedly be assumed by young leaders like Jossmet, demonstrating to the community that their initiatives have value and that they can become reality.

“The training meant a lot to me,” Jossmet says. “It was a highlight for me, and with this work, I can support my community and the work of VIDS. I want to continue learning more and go to the next level. This is a chance in my life, and I take it with both hands.”