- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO (AP) - When Hugo Jabini saw his people’s territory in Suriname being devastated by logging in the mid-1990s, he and a tribal leader of the forest-dwelling Saramaka decided to devote their days to halting the buzz of chain saws.

For years, Jabini and Wanze Eduards, who are from settlements of palm-thatched huts deep in Suriname’s central rain forest, organized tribal communities to peacefully defend their land and promote their rights _ even as the South American nation’s government warned they would be imprisoned if they tried to stop the logging.

Their activism toward halting the clearcutting of vast stands of tropical trees was rewarded Monday with the Goldman Environmental Prize, given annually by the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation to six winners, one on each inhabited continent.

The winners, who are nominated confidentially by environmental groups and individuals worldwide, receive a $150,000 cash prize.

Jabini, 45, said the shared award with Eduards was a great honor for his tribe of Maroons, the descendants of West African slaves who fled into the jungle after Dutch colonists brought them across the Atlantic to work colonial plantations. The Saramaca _ the largest Maroon tribe in Suriname _ live by fishing, hunting, planting crops and gathering wild nuts and fruits.

“The forest is our life. Saving this environment by organizing our people to fight against loggers was a fight for survival,” Jabini said during a Monday telephone interview from San Francisco, where he and the other winners were being recognized.

The pair’s decade-long campaign against logging on Saramacan lands ultimately led to a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights whose impact extends beyond Suriname. The Goldman Foundation said Eduards and Jabini helped changed the law so that prior and informed consent of indigenous groups will be required for major development projects throughout the Americas.

“They saved not only their communities’ 9,000 square kilometers (nearly 3,500 square miles) of forest, but strengthened the possibility of saving countless more,” the San Francisco-based group said in a statement.

Suriname’s government, which had previously granted concessions to Chinese logging companies without notifying the indigenous tribes, announced in January 2008 that it would abide by the judgment of the Costa Rica-based court.

Officials with President Ronald Venetiaan’s New Front coalition did not return calls Monday.

Jabini, who is studying law at the University of Suriname, said there has been no illegal clearcutting by Chinese companies since 2003 in the Saramaca’s territory in the sparsely populated country. He said he hopes to protect his people’s rights in the future, and is heartened by the number of young Saramacans who “now have a strong belief in the legal battle.”

“The law has not changed yet in Suriname, so the government can always give a new (logging) concession. We have to pay close attention,” he said. “We live with the forest, in the forest. We must protect it.”

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On the Web:

Goldman Prize: https://www.goldmanprize.org/

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