Dan Peplow and Sarah Augustine, activists for indigenous health in Suriname, answer questions
Q. With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
A. We are co-directors of the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund.
Q. What does your organization do?
A. Our organization supplies technology and support to indigenous communities that are impacted by gold mining. The communities we work with live in the rainforest deep in the interior of Suriname, a country the size of Washington state on the northeast coast of South America. Their homes, water, and food supply are all being polluted by mining waste. The rainforest where they live is being destroyed by mining practices.
We support their intervention goals by giving them the tools they need to document the devastation. These tools, often in the form of technology, supply them with the evidence they need to advocate for themselves to international mining companies, foreign investors, development workers, and their own government. Many people don’t know that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international “aid” or “development” organizations promote and fund mining as a means of economic development. In the meantime, the forest is destroyed and indigenous peoples are displaced.
Q. What are you working on at the moment?
A. Right now we are working to deliver a Lumex portable mercury analyzer to indigenous communities in Suriname. This technology is really a portable lab, and there are none like it in any other country nearby. If we are successful, we will provide our indigenous partners with the only lab equipment that can diagnose mercury toxicity in the whole Caribbean region. That will really be something, because indigenous people will own it! It is a powerful tool that will give our partners evidence they can bring to bear in national and international courts.
We are also writing about the proposed Suriname Land Management Program. Like the Dawes Act (legislation that led to policy pertaining to Native Americans in Washington state), this legislation will permanently dispossess indigenous people in Suriname of their traditional lands in the name of economic development.
Q. How do you get to work?
A. We live in Washington state, and most of the work we do here is via email or phone. We go to Suriname when we need to deliver equipment or help our partners with projects when they request it. We mainly work to train community leaders to use sophisticated technology to diagnose the health of their environment and their own bodies. Our goal is always to support the leadership and the goals of our community partners, so most of what we do is raise awareness and money right here in Washington. We go to Suriname once a year on average.
Q. What long and winding road led you to your current position?
A. Well, it was really long and winding!
Dan: I am an eco-toxicologist and mine-waste specialist. I had an internship as an environmental adviser to the U.S. embassy in Suriname. That is how I learned about the devastation that is brought about by gold mining. I also have a background in public health, and I was appalled at how the scientific community was completely ignoring the health impacts of mining on the people who lived in polluted areas.
Sarah: I am a social scientist, and my graduate work focused on “economic development” structures in the developing world. I have a background in human rights, and have been a community organizer around social-justice issues for much of my career.
During our time in Suriname, we built relationships with indigenous communities who live in the interior. They were sick of scientists coming to study them and never returning with help or even the results of their studies. We agreed that we would follow their leadership and work on their goals rather than our own. Dan left the embassy, and we established the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund.
Q. Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Photo courtesy Sarah Augustine and Dan Peplow
A. Dan: I was born in Tacoma, Wash., which I am proud of! I grew up in Ellensburg, Wash. I went to college at Washington State University, and then to graduate school at the University of Washington. Now we live on a ranch in White Swan, Wash., in the lower Yakima Valley.
Sarah: I was born in Colorado and moved to New Mexico for high school and college. I moved to Washington to attend graduate school at the University of Washington. I live on a ranch in White Swan, too!
Q. What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
A. Dan: When indigenous community leaders rebuked me for the actions of scientific colleagues who preceded me. I was forced to take a hard look at my profession and change my life.
Sarah: When Dan’s life was threatened by a Surinamese government official in 2005. The work we had been doing threatened some folks who were benefiting from polluting practices. On that trip, I left the country a week before Dan, and he was in the hot seat while I was safe in Washington. Getting him out was the toughest 72 hours of my life.
Q. What’s been the best?
A. Building friendships and relationships with indigenous friends. It has made our work tangibly meaningful.
Q. What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
A. Dan: The willful collaboration of large environmental and conservation organizations with the economic-development process. See this article in Orion and this article [PDF] in World Watch magazine.
Sarah: In 2004, we attended a Caribbean regional meeting given by the United Nations to address mercury as a global pollutant. I had a conversation with one of the presenters (a U.N. person) that changed my life. When I told him that indigenous people in Suriname have highly elevated levels of mercury in their bodies, leading to atrocious birth defects similar to the famous cases in Minamata, Japan, 50 years ago, he said, “Maybe in five or six generations they will genetically adapt in order to survive.” What infuriates me is that this attitude defines human lives as a scientific curiosity. We have heard equally callous statements at meetings around the world.
Q. Who is your environmental hero?
A. Dan: Kathleen Carpenter. She was a zoologist who described the ecology of mine-waste impacts 40 years before Rachel Carson popularized the word “ecology.”
Sarah: Mark Plotkin. He founded Amazon Conservation Team. He described the link between deforestation, extermination of biological diversity, and economic development.
Q. What’s your environmental vice?
A. We consume a lot of fuel going to South America.
Q. How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?
A. We now live on a ranch in eastern Washington where we practice sustainable agriculture. This has meant restoring a place that was an industrial farm back to native plants and habitat. We are really just following the example of our friends in Suriname — we want to live an integrated life. What impressed us most about indigenous folks in Suriname is that they do not produce any trash. We aspire to do the same!
Q. What’s your favorite meal?
A. Dan: Oyster stew, fresh-baked bread, and salad.
Sarah: Edamame with sea salt, beef jerky, and cranberry juice. Yum!
Q. Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
A. Dan: I am passionate about conservation and confronting consumerism.
Sarah: I have never seen myself as an environmentalist, but a human-rights worker. I think I am more of a holist — to be healthy, we need a healthy planet. So then I guess my stereotype is that I say confusing things that are a little “woo woo”!
Q. What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
A. Dan: Glaciers. They present an elegant interaction of biology (life), geology (earth), and hydrology (water).
Sarah: Where I live now. The birds are amazing — life is everywhere. The outside is so big, and I so small.
Q. If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
A. Dan: Reduce individual entitlement to consume.
Sarah: Mining gems and precious metals would be illegal in all instances everywhere.
Q. Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
Q. What’s your favorite movie?
A. Dan: The Seventh Seal. Death and some guy play chess.
Q. Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Dan: Lyle Lovett.
A. Sarah: I am still laughing at Dan’s answer! I can see it, though. For myself, Janeane Garofalo.
Q. If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
A. Dan: Value self-determination: development doesn’t mean the American dream for everyone.
Sarah: Boycott gold! Say no to engagement rings.