In remote Suriname, an indigenous village fights to preserve its past, improve its future

July 18, 2022
Residents of Pëlëlu Tëpu village with the VIDS team. Credit: VIDS

In the far south of Suriname, in the middle of the country's virgin Amazon rainforest, is the small village of Pëlëlu Tëpu, where only 500 people belonging to the Trío indigenous people live. Among them, they usually refer to themselves as tarëno, which means “the people from here.” Like most of the indigenous peoples of Suriname and northern Brazil, the Trío linguistic family comes from the Caribe languages.

Tëpu is accessible only by small plane. Its remoteness and the surrounding environment of the Amazon jungle have helped to keep the village isolated. This has led to minimal Western influence and the preservation of its people’s language, native customs and cultural cohesion.

In addition to continuing this preservation, the people of Tëpu recognize the importance of organizing themselves to respond to community needs and access resources to fund community projects and improve their future. They’re seeking a balance, and they recently turned to the Pact-led SCIOA project for support. Funded by USAID, SCIOA (Strengthening the Capacities of Indigenous Organization in the Amazon) is increasing indigenous people's influence in the governance of the Amazon region in order to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people. Through SCIOA, Pact and its partners are building the capacities of indigenous organizations to access and manage financial resources and take ownership of their own development planning and priorities in the rainforest of Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Suriname and Guyana.

The people of Tëpu were inspired by the success of their neighbors, the Christiaankondre and Langamankondre peoples of Suriname’s northern Amazon, who organized themselves with SCIOA’s support and established their own waste management system.

By plane is the only way to get to Pëlëlu Tëpu. Here, the VIDS team travels to Pëlëlu Tëpu for workshops planned with the community. Credit: VIDS

“The biggest thought behind the SCIOA project is to make indigenous organizations self-sufficient in managing their financial resources so they can use them in the right way. They also need to know how the funds they access should be accounted for,” explains Cylene France, interim director of VIDS, SCIOA’s implementing partner in Suriname. The VIDS team has now visited the Trío village on two occasions.

Through the SCIOA project in Pëlëlu Tëpu, which started in April and lasts one year, the community determined that it needs to improve its skills and knowledge to manage resources.

“It's important that people understand what the project entails and the role of the community, because people will shape their own reinforcement journey,” France says. “We will only guide them.”

Community members hold a discussion during a project formulation workshop. Credit: VIDS

This is the spirit of SCIOA – supporting indigenous organizations to adapt and take as their own the methodologies provided by the project. They can then use this knowledge to work toward their dreams, hopes and aspirations as organizations and communities.

During SCIOA workshops, Tëpu village’s organization identified six capacity areas to strengthen: production, cooperation, knowledge and training, tradition and culture, town amenities and a traditional governance. To put new skills into practice, they will receive a small grant to write and implement a community project that they chose, with VIDS and SCIOA supporting them as they bring it to fruition.

SCIOA has taught Tëpu’s leaders to “put their brains together,” explains Starian, a workshop participant.

“From there, we can understand how to write, monitor and manage a project. That is important. We used to have projects, but because of mismanagement, they stopped halfway through. But we see this project as one that will live a long time.”