Dan Peplow and Sarah Augustine, activists for indigenous health in Suriname, answer questions
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!