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.
Q. Could you say more about the indigenous people of Suriname with whom you have been working so closely? How many different groups or ethnicities are there? In what kinds of environments do they live? How do they relate to the plants and animals of their environment, which are as threatened as they are by the toxic pollution caused by the mining operations? In what language do you communicate with one another? — Marcus Stephanus, New York, N.Y.
A. We only work with communities that invite us, and we have more invitations than resources. We also have a set of ethical guidelines that state, among other things, that communities will direct our work and that communities and individuals are free to participate or withdraw at their will without reprisal. Consequently, our focus is on building trusting relationships based on shared goals and mutual respect. We share the goals of the interior people and their concern about the effects of unfettered mining, like the contamination that results from the release of mercury, cyanide, and silt.
In the Suriname interior, where all gold mining takes place, the indigenous people (or Amerindians) and the Maroons are the majority, with a combined population of approximately 60,000 — approximately 8 percent of the total population. Each of these groups is made up of several culturally distinct societies with culturally distinct languages. Many people also speak Sranantongo, a coastal creole language that was developed on the English plantations in the 17th century. While we are learning Dutch (the official language in Suriname) and Sranantongo, we are not proficient enough to work independently, so we are usually accompanied by either an anthropologist or in-country coworkers.
It would be presumptuous to comment on the relationship of the interior peoples to the plants and animals in their environment. However, we would venture to say that in contrast to individuals who are tied to Western societies through employment, professional links, political parties, club memberships, neighborhood address, affiliation with a particular religion, or hobbies, interior people lead lives that integrate their past, future, spirituality, and environment in ways we can’t even imagine. For more information, please see the section on Suriname in the last three issues of The Indigenous World.
Q. How has the U.S. Agency for International Development or other international “aid” or “development” organizations funded mining as a means of economic development in Suriname? — J. Sanches, Netherlands
A. First we want to acknowledge that this is a dangerous question for us to answer. We have already been threatened (we were warned that we might not be able to exit the country safely) for “interfering” with the mining industry by addressing questions like yours. We suggest most fervently that you research the relationship between “foreign aid” and mining for yourself, as well as the relationship between “development” and poverty, disease, violence, deforestation, and displacement of indigenous peoples. Here is a brief, direct answer.
The Inter-American Development Bank project Support for the Sustainable Development of the Interior, approved last month, is currently working on two major directives: developing foreign investment in the interior, and extracting resources. The plan for the project looks benevolent enough, with terms like “sustainability” and a plan for “inclusion of local leaders.” However, this project has as its focus economic development, which in the context of Suriname’s rainforest invariably means timber and mining. This project aims to resolve land-rights disputes with the stated intention of privatization. What is there to privatize? The main wealth of the country: mineral resources. For our full treatment of this issue, see Indigenous World 2007. For a reaction to mining by indigenous leaders, please see here [PDF].
Finally, a note on linking USAID to mining in Suriname. The IDB gave the World Wildlife Fund a grant of $100,000 in 2006 to “train gold miners in Suriname in sustainable production.” WWF organized the country’s small-scale gold-mining sector by creating a mining association. Their aim was to “teach sustainable practices.” In the final report of the pilot project, the stated goal was to “create a responsible small-scale gold-mining industry.” Ignore the word responsible for a minute. When did one of the three largest conservation organizations in the world go into the business of creating any kind of mining industry? Answer: According to the 2001 WWF publication “How We Work: Using 200 Priority EcoRegions,” approximately 45 percent of USAID funds allocated for global conservation between 1990 and 2001 went to WWF. USAID acknowledges WWF as one of five primary conservation partners. In Suriname, WWF supports mining.
Q. Suriname has one of the largest sea turtle nesting populations in the world on its coastal beaches. I work for a U.S.-based marine conservation nonprofit that works with Suriname to assist in monitoring the nesting activity of the sea turtles at the mouth of the Marowijne River. One thing we have always wondered: might it be possible for the mercury from gold mining in the interior to flow down the river and be deposited with the sediments that make up the sand of the nesting beaches? If so, given that mercury can interfere with embryo development, is it possible that this could reduce hatching success along these important nesting beaches? — Wayne Sentman, Boston, Mass.
A. It’s definitely possible. We identified high concentrations of mercury in people living in a village upriver from gold mining. Objections to the results were based on the assumption that contamination moved downriver only. Since no work on pathway of mercury dispersion has been done in Suriname, our only defense was that mercury was moving up the food chain and fish in the food chain were swimming upstream. Consider the fact that, in general terms, when inorganic mercury enters the bottom of the food chain (algae) it becomes 10 times more concentrated on average in each predator as it moves up the chain. Given that there are five or six levels to the food chain, mercury will be concentrated from 100,000 to 1 million times when it reaches the top predator. Other candidate pathways for dispersal include elemental mercury in water, sediments, and air.
Q. Are any metals mined safely? Is there any way to tell when manufacturers are sourcing better vs. worse suppliers for their metals? This interests me because I design jewelry. — Galen Warden, Rockaway, N.J.
A. We can say definitively that there are no metals mined safely. No matter what practices are used, all mining destroys the surface of the earth and ecosystems that reside on that surface. All mining disrupts water, soil, and air. For example, mines dug by the Romans on the Rio Tinto in Spain are more than 1,000 years old, and acid mine drainage and heavy-metal pollution of surface water, groundwater, and the food chain still impact surrounding communities. There is no research data that tells us how long these impacts last, or when they might dissipate.
We strongly advocate recycling precious metals and gemstones. We believe there are more than enough gems and metals out there to sustain our need for jewelry. We have chosen to focus on engagement rings in particular, since they only became an artifact of our culture after diamond mines created a marketing campaign demanding that we value them. We are asking that our society value life and health instead.
You could have such a huge impact as a jewelry designer! You can offer the alternatives, recycled gems and metals. You have the same opportunity the diamond industry had in making us think engagement rings are a must for everyone: you can ask consumers to value life by choosing ethically produced gems and metals.
Q. The Achuar tribe of the Ecuadorian rainforest have a message for Western civilization: we are sleepwalking into oblivion and we must “change the dream.” Do the indigenous people of Suriname have a similar message? If so, is there a way we could encourage them and others with ancient wisdoms to unite in efforts to help us in the north to “wake up”? — Vanessa Spedding, Wigmore, Herefordshire, United Kingdom
A. I wish some of the messages we were given were as poetic. Mostly they go something like: “We are tired of being studied”; “You come, take things, leave, and never return”; “Why are you here and what do you want?”; “We don’t know who you are, what you are doing, or why.” Stuff like that. We don’t encourage them to do anything. We do a lot of listening and, if anything, they encourage us to study ourselves. We have been asked why we care so much about things, about owning and possessing things. Also, they want to know why we go to their villages to get what we want, like data to promote our scientific careers. The question to us is, therefore, why do we study “underdevelopment”? Why don’t we study the “pathologies of power” instead?
Q. Does your organization do any work with the Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the interior of Suriname? — Jake Evans, Paramaribo, Suriname
A. We were actively involved with the Peace Corps in Suriname and with the Peace Corps Master’s program and the Center for Water and Watershed Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. The American embassy was involved and there was a proposed Center for Technical Excellence. There was even a memorandum of understanding written and signed. Our guess is that the project stalled due to personnel turnover at the Peace Corps office and in the American embassy in Suriname.
Q. Literally hundreds of indigenous people in Suriname are actually making a living with mining gold, and using mercury in the process. Have you made any effort in educating them in alternative (and healthier) ways of mining? — J. Sanches, Netherlands
A. We posed a similar question to a mine engineer who said, “Look, mining is a liquidation business. There is no such thing as sustainable mining. When it’s gone, it’s gone and there is no going back. A mineral deposit, the geology of an area, the hydrology does not just grow back like a forest of trees.”
A lot of time and money has been spent trying to improve the mining process. A good example was the 1998 Organization of American States project “Introducing Retorts for Abatement of Mercury Pollution in Suriname.” It failed miserably. For the most part, the goal of most of these projects is to create a population of people who will be allies in efforts to develop the gold-mining industry.
Q. Do you know if anyone is doing anything similar to your work in neighboring Guyana? Are there similar problems with mercury in the gold-mining operations there? As you are probably aware, there was a huge cyanide spill from the Omai mining operation a number of years ago. — Laura Hall, Albuquerque, N.M.
A. There are huge cyanide spills every rainy season throughout Suriname, French Guiana, and Guyana, wherever there is a mine and a retention pond, and there are two rainy seasons each year. We know communities downriver from what was the Golden Star mine, now owned by Cambior, who see fish kills and dead bush pigs whenever the rainfall exceeds the capacity of retention ponds. We provided these communities with portable cyanide test kits to test the water themselves. We have met many qualified professionals in Guyana who are working on this topic. We recommend you contact either Khalid Alladin from the Guyana EPA or the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission.
Q. How can I help? I was born in Suriname, and once was government psychologist when the government had no clear knowledge of what a psychologist was or could do for the country. — Robert Wolff, Kea’au, Hawaii
A. As a psychologist with knowledge and ties to Suriname and with experience working in the government, there is something very specific you can do: you could help us respond to a request by people in interior communities who have been exposed to mercury from mining. Approximately 300 families in a cluster of three villages told us, “We can go to a clinic and get a test for malaria. When the test is positive we know we have malaria and we can get treated. When we are tested for mercury, we know we are exposed, but we don’t know if we have mercury poisoning. We would like to have ongoing health assessments to determine what effect the mercury is having on us, especially our children.” The question to you is, how can socially and culturally appropriate health assessments be provided to the people in the interior? We look forward to hearing from you!