The myth of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Golden Land lives on. But the price to find El Dorado has only increased.
As a resource-rich country, Suriname bills itself to international investors as a modern-day “El Dorado”. Yet many fear the small nation on South America’s Atlantic Coast is selling its wealth at the expense of its people’s health.
In Suriname, mining is slowly turning the country into the poster child for the complex interplay between environmental degradation, human displacement and wreaking havoc on individual and community health.
Among some of the direct health problems are mercury poisoning caused by industrial run-off. But other health challenges, like increasing cases of malaria and HIV rates are also becoming a source of concern.
Latin America’s Forgotten Wild Coast
In conversations with “buitenlanders” (foreigners), the most common and unfortunate reaction to “Suriname” is Suri-what? Where? Suriname lies nestled between Guyana and French Guyana with Brazil to the south. The country occupies 63,675 rugged square miles, nearly 80-percent of which is covered by the Guianas shield rainforest. Most of Suriname’s 560,000 inhabitants live on the Atlantic coast, in and surrounding the capital city of Paramaribo. The rainforests are inhabited by indigenous peoples and Maroons, the descendants of runaway slaves.
A former Dutch colony, Suriname’s linguistic and multiethnic profile often erases the country from people’s conceptual map of South America. In many ways, the country has more in common with the Caribbean. The Dutch-speaking nation is a multicultural patchwork of Creoles, Javanese, Chinese, Maroons, Hindustanis, and indigenous peoples. Despite that Sranan-tongo, a Creole language coined by African slaves in the 17th century, is the official language, ethnic groups speak different languages among themselves.
Suriname produces gold and bauxite, which dominated the economy, and has a nascent oil industry. Mining, the country’s longest-standing industry, began under Dutch colonial rule in the late 19thand early 20th century with U.S. based Alcoa and its subsidiary Suralco. Bauxite, the main source for aluminum, is the country’s leading export.
Gold, however, has gradually become a major attraction. Since the 1900s, prospectors drifted in seeking their fortunes. In 1901, the gold industry in Suriname employed over 5,500 people. By 1903,a railroad was built to link Paramaribo to the goldfields, bringing increased development. After Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, mining operations dwindled. Then, between the 1980s and 1990s, the country experienced political turbulence, including two military coups that resulted in an 8-year civil war. Regional poverty coupled with an upswing in gold prices worldwide sparked renewed interest in the industry. By 2007, mineral exports including gold, bauxite and oil represented 50% of GDP. Thanks to the mining sector, the country is now ranked as a middle-income country, on par with South Africa, and has one of the lowest public debts in the region.
Suriname’s environment and health bear the burden of this prosperity. Inspired by promises of gold, small to medium-scale artisanal mining—defined as “mining characterized by an untrained labor force that uses rudimentary techniques for prospecting, extracting, and processing of gold”—is booming in what once were densely forested areas. For the estimated 20,000 small-scale miners, the preferred method of mining is often hydraulicking. This method uses hydraulic monitors and excavators to spray pressurized water to disintegrate and move sections of the ground suspected of holding gold particles. Once sprayed, this reddish clay mixture is then pumped to sluice boxes, where heavier minerals, including gold particles, are separated from lighter waste minerals. The parts containing gold are then collected and panned with mercury for further processing. At the end, mineral waste is discarded into nearby streams and jungle patches, resulting in water contamination by siltation, heavy metals and mercury.
Exposure to small amounts of mercury can cause serious health problems depending on the type of mercury. In Suriname, most miners are exposed to metallic and vapor mercury. According to a WWF report, “high-level exposure to mercury vapor, and to a lesser extent metallic mercury, can result in nervous system damage causing tremors, as well as mood and personality alterations. Broad, systemic effects occur on kidneys, lungs, muscle, liver, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal system, and circulatory systems.”
Medical science has documented the negative impact of mercury exposure in Suriname since 2003. Local doctors noticed an increased incidence of birth defects attributable to mercury poisoning in children born to Maroon and indigenous women living near artisanal mining camps. Birth defects included central nervous system problems and stunted limb development.
The WWF designed trainings for gold miners on the use of new and environment -friendly mining techniques in 2006, and the Suriname government passed legislation regulating the use of mercury. Yet, mercury poisoning continues to be a persistent problem among the Wayana people and other indigenous and maroon groups.
Large-scale mines also use dangerous chemicals either. Frequently, they employ cyanide in a closed industrial circuit to accomplish what small-scale miners do with mercury. Leakage incidents are common. In 1995,the Omai gold mine in neighboring Guyana experienced a spill of 800-million gallons of cyanide-laced sediment into one of its main rivers, poisoning thousands of people. As a result, governments environmental protection legislation but it remains difficult to enforce, especially in the border areas between Suriname, Guyana, and Brazil where many exploration concessions exist.
Malaria on the Golden Frontier
In Suriname, mining is concentrated along the Northeastern district of Brokopondo, the site of a man-made reservoir, and on the Marowijne River along the border with French Guiana. Along these areas, malaria rates are also the highest.
The recent gold fever has drawn miners from across Latin America. The most visible and well- document migrant miners are Brazilians, known as garimpeiros amongst each other, and “porkknockers” locally. An estimated 8,000 live within the country’s borders. More are thought to drift between northeastern Brazil and French Guiana.
Migration, small-scale mining, and malaria go hand in hand. Brazilian and Maroon gold miners live in open-air camps without mosquito nets. These camps are located near man-made pools of water from which gold is extracted in patches of newly cleared forest—an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos carrying malarial parasites. The human body can establish some immunity, but high-rates of mobility among mining groups contribute to the creation of endless cycles of “frontier malaria”—malaria fueled by mobility and environmental degradation in the Amazon.
A Global Fund campaign started in 2004 and targeted interventions aimed at Brazilian miners have helped dramatically decrease malaria rates across Suriname. Even so, according to a report released in 2012, 81% of new infections occur among mining populations. Indigenous and Maroon communities with no prior exposure to the parasite are among the most vulnerable to malaria, along with the cooks, truck drivers, shop owners, and sex workers who travel with them.
Money, Sex, Blood: HIV-AIDS
Sex work in Suriname is turning into the most lucrative sector of these attachment service economies,. This has drawn the attention of government officials seeking to increase the country’s tax revenues off the estimated one billion dollars mining brings in each year. In September 2011, the Committee Structuring Gold Sector announced that sex workers operating in mining fields would be required to register with the government and file taxes each year. However, the risks are quickly outweighing the benefits.
Released ahead of the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. in 2012, the UNAIDS “Together We Will End AIDS” report offered updates on the global AIDS epidemic. Among the most curious pieces of information was the data from Suriname that estimates HIV prevalence for sex workers at 24 percent.
Among the population as a whole, rates of infection hover around 1% for adults ages 15-49. Similar to the rest of the world, male and female sex workers in Suriname are disproportionately affected by the epidemic. In Paramaribo, curb-side soliciting is illegal yet night club-based sex work is allowed and regulated. By law, sex workers are required to register at a local dermatology clinic and get tested for STIs every 2 weeks.
However, regulation and availability of contraceptives are frequently absent in mining camps located in the country’s interior. Miners who hire sex workers often engage in unsafe sex practices that lead to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. While Suriname has made significant strides in increasing the number of persons tested for HIV, HAART and 2nd line ARV regimes, challenges to access lie in the country’s Amazonian topography. Localized prevention efforts led by Maroon and indigenous women involving plays and dances advocating safe sex are usually the best and only line of defense.
The Promise of El Dorado: Displacement and Degradation
Despite falling gold prices and rising operating costs, gold fever reigns supreme among small-scale miners and multinational mining corporations. On June 6, the Surinamese government and Canadian-based Iamgold Corp signed a deal to expand the country’s Rosebel gold mine—the country’s oldest and most productive mine. Talks are slated to take place with Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp in the coming days to develop the Merian Gold Project.
The latter came under fire in 2009, when the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) warned that the project—located on a 400-square-kilometer area of unprotected rainforest known as the Nassau Plateau—“would destroy habitats that support rare and endemic species including several newly discovered species of catfish, frogs, and a stunning purple toad.” The resolution also stated that, “Mining operations would further encourage the influx of wildcat gold miners in the area, increasing environmental damage and putting pressure on wildlife.”
The most immediate impact of the boom is the displacement of indigenous and maroon tribes. In the 1960s, Suralco forced members of the Saramaka and N’Dyuka tribes off their lands to build a hydro-electric dam and reservoir. A number of displaced families relocated to Nieuw Koffiekamp, which sits on the same gold deposits that feed the Rosebel gold mine. An agreement signed with Alcoa in 2003 to develop the Bakhuis mountains region in Western Suriname for extensive timber, mining and gold extraction projects, caused the displacement of indigenous communities living in the area.
In 1597, British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh referred to Guiana as “a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sackt, turned, nor wrought.”
The sexualized portrayal expresses underlying colonial aspirations at the core of Europe’s 16thand 17thcentury gold rush. Spanish, Portuguese and British explorers searched for the mythical city of gold believed to be located in the untrammeled Amazonian wilderness. Yet, as one of Raleigh’s contemporaries put it, the reckless pursuit for El Dorado “cost Spain more than all the treasures she received from her South American possessions.” Raleigh himself led several unsuccessful expeditions on the Orinoco river and into the Guiana shield region comprising modern day Venezuela. Like many before him, he paid a heavy price for his quest, including the life of his son Watt Raleigh, his own freedom, and eventually, his head.
Despite Raleigh’s and countless others’ dire fates, the idea of an untapped and endless source of wealth has proven resilient, drawing ruthless explorers and desperate human beings seeking to better their fortunes.
The small-scale miners working in the informal sector of the economy—whether Brazilian or Surinamese— hardly ever strike it rich. Their meager finds may temporarily alleviate poverty, but at the expense of their health and the environment.
Yet somehow, the old myths persist. And the price of seeking the gold-paved streets of El Dorado continues to be –too often—life itself.
Acclaration. According to Newmont Mining Corp. fact sheet and representative Diane Reberger, who contacted us after this piece was published, the Merian Gold Project is located 66 Km south of the town of Moengo and 30 Km north of the Nassau Mountains—meaning that the project has no overlap with the Nassau plateau. However, in checking the geographical discrepancy, one source pointed out that in 2008 Newmont had been exploring a larger area, including one closer to the plateau. This possibly led to the ABTC declaration which warned that that the project—identified by ABTC as being located on a 400-square-kilometer area of unprotected rainforest known as the Nassau Plateau—“would destroy habitats that support rare and endemic species including several newly discovered species of catfish, frogs, and a stunning purple toad.” None of the contacted ABTC representatives confirmed or denied whether the declaration, published in 2009, contained a geographical error. The resolution also stated that “Mining operations would further encourage the influx of wildcat gold miners in the area, increasing environmental damage and putting pressure on wildlife.” While Newmont states in their reports that all efforts are being undertaken to minimize impact, no one was available from ABTC to comment or clarify on this fact at this time.
Update. On June 8, Suriname’s National Assembly approved a mineral agreement with U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp and Alcoa Worldwide Alumina to develop the Merian Gold Project.
The agreement spans 25 years and the government will get 6 percent royalty, to be paid in gold. According to the article, the area will be about 40 miles (66 km) south of the town of Moengo and 19 miles (30 km) north of the Nassau Mountains. The deal was reached a day after the government and another gold miner, Canada’s Iamgold Corp, signed an agreement to expand Suriname’s Rosebel gold mine and extend a partnership to develop it until 2042.
Alexandra McAnarney is a communications consultant and recent graduate from the University of Chicago’s Latin American Studies M.A. Program. As part of her field research, she lived at a migrant shelter along the Mexico-Guatemala border. Before studying at the University of Chicago, she worked as a Communications Coordinator at the Florida Immigrant Coalition and as an HIV/AIDS Journalist in South Florida. She writes for the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org. A native of El Salvador and former resident of Mexico City, her work focuses on migration, youth, gangs, and health and can be found at perishmotherland.tumblr.com
Rudolf Kemper contributed to this report.
Great article – thanks. Most informative.
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