Miners and Maroons in Surinam
Surinam is a little-known country on the north eastern coast of South America, with a population of only 400,000 people, 90 percent of whom live along the coast and in the capital city of Paramaribo. The interior is one of the last great pristine regions of the Amazon, with an area of untouched rainforest the size of England and Wales, and is home to six tribes of ‘Maroons’ and four Amazonian Indian peoples.
The Maroons are descended from African slaves who made their escape from the colonial plantations into the jungle. The forests were their refuge from the Dutch colonial powers and quickly became central to their survival. They organised independent new communities along traditional African lines, and their warriors used traditional medicines, which they saw as protecting them from bullets and giving them immense strength. Like the Maroons of Jamaica and the slave army of Toussaint L’Ouverture on Haiti, the Surinam Maroons have a proud tradition of resistance, having defeated the Dutch army with a campaign of guerrilla warfare in the 18th century. As a result the Dutch agreed to leave the interior alone, on the condition that not more than six Maroons at a time visited Paramaribo!
But this situation was unlikely to last into the modern era. In the mid-1960s as many as 17,000 Maroons were forcibly relocated to make way for the Brokopondo dam and hydroelectric plant. This was intended to provide energy for US company Suralco’s new aluminium smelter, and to supply power to Paramaribo. Many people simply could not comprehend that their ancestral territories would be gone. In exchange for being uprooted, the Maroons were given minimal compensation—as little as 4 Surinam Guilders for families without children. Their new villages consisted of poorly ventilated corrugated iron shacks, and high voltage power lines ran nearby, while the communities had no electricity. They feel they’ve had no benefits, “only sadness”. By contrast, Suralco and the government went out of their way to save the animals of the affected area, taking great pains to capture and relocate them to higher ground.
One of the resettled communities—Nieuw Koffiekamp—discovered a huge gold deposit on their new land, which they began to work using small-scale methods. (These small scale operations are not without their problems. They account for the majority of gold production in Surinam, and thus the majority of environmental degradation: e.g. mercury contamination and fouling of water sources, which leads to malaria epidemics.) Given that the government was now pinning its hopes on gold, as revenues from aluminium ore were starting to decline, it was perhaps inevitable that Nieuw Koffiekamp would not be allowed to occupy its land in peace. When Canadian mining company Golden Star set up camp in 1994, less than a kilometre from the village, its 800 residents hadn’t even been informed that the Gros Rosebel mining concession had been granted. Now they were threatened with relocation once more. For them, this was tantamount to impending cultural and social death for their community: the crucial links with their ancestors, land and kin—embodied in a network of sacred sites and burial grounds—would be further weakened and even destroyed. As if the Maroons and Indians didn’t have enough to contend with already, the government also announced three huge logging concessions of a million hectares each, covering 40 percent of Surinam’s area.
Even by the standards of the mining industry, Golden Star has an evil reputation. It operates the Omai gold mine, the second largest in South America, in neighbouring Guyana. In 1995 a dam containing waste failed, and the mine leaked 4 million litres of cyanide into Guyana’s principal river, the Essequibo. This was the biggest such spill in history, affecting 200 kilometres of the river, but according to the company it wasn’t a “serious” impact, merely “one of the many risks of doing business”. They aren’t above using trickery and intimidation to obtain their concessions as well. When Nieuw Koffiekamp residents adamantly insisted that they would not be moved again, Golden Star got feared former military dictator Desi Bouterse to put pressure on them. Bouterse, described as the most powerful man in Surinam, made public death threats against one of the Nieuw Koffiekamp community leaders. At Golden Star’s insistence thousands of small-scale Maroon miners were evicted from Gros Rosebel, with Surinam’s Minister of Justice even threatening to carry out airstrikes against the miners if they did not leave. The company imposed a pass law on the villagers, restricting access to their subsistence gardens and hunting and fishing grounds in the concession area, making it difficult for them to survive. The area was patrolled by armed police and private security, who fired indiscriminately on anyone found in the zone. Golden Star also dug trenches and erected a huge earth wall around Nieuw Koffiekamp, effectively cutting the village off.
The reaction to Golden Star’s arrival had been swift. In March 1994 an unidentified armed force— the ‘Surinamese Liberation Front’—took 26 hostages and held them at the Brokopondo Dam, demanding that the company’s permission be revoked. Later, the villagers themselves responded to the intolerable provocations they were experiencing by blockading the road to the mining camp for five weeks. A struggle ensued when police attempted to forcibly dismantle the barricade, and 50 of them fired on the blockaders. In August 1995 the Maroons and their indigenous allies held a Gran Krutu (Great Gathering) in which they made a new declaration of autonomy for the interior, calling themselves the Supreme Authority with the sole power to accept or reject development projects in their region.
The Maroons feel that if they don’t strengthen themselves, the onslaught of foreign multinationals will mean that they will enter the second period of slavery. Maroon identity is inextricably linked to their struggle for liberation from slavery, which is always referred to as the “first time”. Even today, hundreds of years on, they feel that this cannot be discussed openly without risking severe spiritual repercussions—so the prospect of being enslaved once more is one of deep cataclysmic dread.
In keeping with their tradition of resistance they carried out one of the most obscure but successful ecological struggles of recent times, bringing the government of Surinam to its knees in the 1980s. An armed rebellion began in 1986 after Desi Bouterse sought to impose development plans on the interior, plans that would mean eviction of Maroon communities all over again. The Maroons formed the ‘Jungle Commandos’ and a vicious civil war raged for six years. Bouterse retaliated by launching a series of atrocities against Maroon settlements, most infamously at Moiwana village in late 1986, where 50 unarmed civilians were gunned down. To this day the massacre has not been investigated. But the Jungle Commandos forced the government to the negotiating table, by mounting attacks on economic targets which closed down the aluminium industry, even managing to cut off power from the Brokopondo dam. This struck at the very heart of Surinam’s economy.
A tenuous peace was declared in 1992, with the promise of ‘Economic Zones’ for the Maroons and Indians—supposedly securing their land rights and community development. But as Nieuw Koffiekamp’s experience shows, the promises that the Maroons had fought so hard for were betrayed.
Within a few short years, Surinam had chosen to prostrate itself before the multinationals again.
As of late spring 2002 the mine at Nieuw Koffiekamp has still not been constructed. For the last five years the low price of gold on international markets has made it economically unfeasible and kept the community hanging on by a thread. Construction is due to start in the near future, and the villagers are split over whether to finally give in to relocation, having been worn down by the long years of struggle against the mine. Half (up to 75) of all the other indigenous and Maroon villages in Surinam are menaced by similar mining concessions, and their fate rests on Nieuw Koffiekamp’s fight for survival. The government will not waver from its view of these communities as squatters, who can be moved on at will. Any other attitude might endanger ‘investor confidence’ and the all-important project of liquidating Surinam’s rich biological and cultural diversity.
Forest Peoples Programme/Forest Peoples
1c Fosseway Business Centre
Moreton-in-Marsh GL56 9NQ