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Can Two New Bills Reshape Indigenous Rights and Illegal Gold Mining in Suriname?

gold mine

Illegal gold mining in Natuur Park, Brownsberg, about 130 km south of Suriname's capital, Paramaribo. Image by Erlan Sleur.

  • Two bills currently before Suriname’s parliament aim to recognize the rights of the country’s Indigenous inhabitants and tackle the forest-poisoning mercury pollution associated with gold mining.
  • But both bills face an uphill battle: Suriname has repeatedly refused to recognize Indigenous rights, making it one of the few Amazonian countries to do so, while gold mining is the backbone of the country’s economy.
  • A key provision in one of the bills is the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which would make it illegal to open mining concessions on Indigenous land without the community’s consent.
  • The other bill, on stopping the illegal mercury trade, threatens to ruffle the feathers of powerful individuals with links to the gold industry, including Suriname’s current vice president.

Funding for the research and writing of this series of articles was provided by Amazon Aid Foundation.

“We’ve been fighting the government of Suriname for almost 25 years, for recognition of our land rights,” says Jupta Itoewaki, a leader of the Indigenous Wayana people. “The government and leaders don’t feel like they need to consult us.”

Itoewaki has long been at the forefront of a battle to win legal standing for Indigenous and tribal groups, who make up about a quarter of the population of Suriname, the smallest country in South America. Along with Guyana and French Guiana, Suriname is the only Amazonian country or territory not to have ratified Convention 169, a 1989 treaty from the International Labour Organization (ILO) that legally recognizes Indigenous and tribal peoples’ right to self-determination. Such rights have not been recognized despite rulings in 2006, 2007 and 2015 by the Inter-American Human Rights Court against Suriname for violating the rights of Indigenous groups.

And as Indigenous activists in Suriname recently pointed out, even the United Nations continues to fail to be sensitive to the issue. On a trip to the country in July, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres celebrated Suriname’s record of preserving its forests, calling the country an example for the rest of the world. Two associations of tribal and Indigenous leaders, VIDS and KAMPOS, sent a letter to Guterres and the U.N. reminding them that Suriname’s environmental and human rights records have been far from the best and pleading for legislation to defend their rights.

Drone shot of gold mining impacts in Natuur Park, Brownsberg. Image by Erlan Sleur.

But Indigenous activists like Itoewaki are also calling for more protection against an industry that’s the backbone of Suriname’s economy: gold mining. While gold currently accounts for more than 80% of the country’s total exports, it also ravages ecosystems and human health. Not only is mining Suriname’s biggest source of deforestation, but the mercury used in the extraction of gold has poisoned rivers and fish, threatening the livelihoods of the Indigenous people who rely on these natural resources.

Two bills making their way through Suriname’s parliament could bring change: one aims for the recognition of Indigenous land rights, which would impact what mining can be undertaken, and where; the other, an environmental penal law, aims to stop the illegal mercury trade in Suriname.

Both bills face an uphill battle. Corruption and its reliance on illegal mercury trafficking make the gold industry difficult to control. According to the Dutch newspaper NRC, Suriname’s former regime, led by Desi Bouterse — convicted in absentia in the Netherlands for drug trafficking and murder — granted dozens of multimillion-dollar mining concessions as bribes to members of its inner circle. During Bouterse’s term, the Kaloti Suriname Mint House, which certifies all gold mined in Suriname and is part-owned by the government, was accused of laundering illegal gold for export to major hubs such as the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Cyanide heap leaching being used for extracting gold in Natuur Park, Brownsberg. This method is widely used to recover precious metals from lower grade ores. Cyanide spills cause major environmental damage, such as contaminating water tables, killing fish and compromising cropland. Image by Erlan Sleur.

With the new government of Chan Santokhi, a former police chief in power since July 2020, there’s more hope for reform. In November 2020, a presidential committee drafted a law amending the Surinamese Constitution to award land rights and legal protection to Indigenous and tribal peoples. The bill, submitted to parliament in June 2021, includes the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), a provision that entitles Indigenous and tribal groups to prior consultation and benefit sharing of commercial activities on their land. If enforced, FPIC would make it illegal to open mining concessions on Indigenous land without their consent.

The bill was heard in February this year but interest had waned until recently, when President Santokhi announced that the National Assembly will evaluate it in late October, according to VIDS. Concerned that while parliament stalls, the government will continue granting mining concessions on their land, VIDS is calling for interim enforcement of land protection and immediate support for the Amotopo and Wayana communities, who are most affected by mining.

A toxic relationship

While Itoewaki says most members of her tribe are against mining, she adds that others support it — mainly, the Maroons, a marginalized group of African descent who rely on gold mining as their main source of livelihood. Not only do thousands of Maroons work as miners, they also lease their land to miners from neighboring Brazil, who now make up close to half the population of Suriname’s interior.

“In some areas, [Brazilian migrants] influence social structures and a lot of the gold goes back to Brazil,” says Johannes Abielie, a Maroon community member and former miner. “But it was the Brazilians who first brought modern gold mining techniques to Suriname.” But that way of mining has been bad news for Suriname’s rivers and forests.

 

Deforestation for gold mining in Natuur Park, Brownsberg. Image by Erlan Sleur.

Since 2000, gold mining has been responsible for almost 70% of deforestation in Suriname. While relatively low, annual forest loss from 2009-2019 was more than three times higher compared to the previous decade, according to a national REDD+ assessment, as the global financial crisis and, later, the COVID-19 pandemic, inflated the price of gold.

The use of barges to dredge rivers, a practice banned in most Amazon countries due to its devastating impacts on water quality, has also been particularly destructive. While the Surinamese government has pledged to regulate dredging, in June 2022 a local environmental group identified six large-scale illegal gold dredges on the Lawa River near the border with French Guiana.

For Indigenous groups in the country’s interior, including the Maroons themselves, this destruction of natural resources has come at a cost. Many no longer have access to clean water and have stopped consuming wild-caught fish, once a staple of their diet. The Wayana community who live along the Lawa River are trying to transition to bottled water and fish farms, but face financial obstacles.

The culprit? Mercury.

Cleaning up a murky industry

“Mercury comes into this country like water,” says Erlan Sleur, chairman of ProBioS, an environmental NGO focused on protecting Suriname’s biodiversity.

Even though Suriname ratified the Minamata Convention in 2018, a global treaty meant to curtail mercury emissions, especially in gold mining, Suriname’s mercury use, at about 100 metric tons per year, according to the U.N. Development Programme, is among the highest in the world relative to the country’s size. Even though the mercury trade is regulated, not a single legal transaction has been recorded for decades.

Erlan Sleur, chairman of ProBioS, an environmental NGO focused on protecting Suriname’s biodiversity, is flying a drone to check for gold mining impacts in Natuur Park, Brownsberg. Image by Erlan Sleur.

“We found a lot of mercury in the fish people eat,” Sleur says, referring to a study conducted by ProBioS on fish from the Lawa River at the border with French Guiana. “Many people are getting sick, including children. The science is real.”

An unlikely opponent of mercury use is Ronny Aloema , the former Surinamese soccer star, who for the past two years has served as a member of parliament.

In an online interview from Suriname’s capital city, Paramaribo, earlier this year, Aloema told Mongabay about an ambitious bill he’s drafting which he believes will transform Suriname’s gold industry and safeguard its forests. That bill focuses on banning and stopping mercury trade, which would help preserve the rivers and lands of Maroon and Amerindian Surinamese.

Aloema said he hopes his proposal will pass before the end of 2022, though for that  he needs the votes of more than half of his 50 fellow MPs. “I am not naïve,” said Aloema, 42. “I know that it is a challenge to protect that big an area of land,” he added. “With my law, I can see security problems, because I will punch the heart of this [gold mining] activity. But I am willing to do it.”

Not everyone is on board. Without providing an alternative to mercury use, some say a ban would take a heavy economic toll on poor Surinamese, particularly Maroons. “The main thing stopping the government from banning mercury is to find a good alternative,” says Abielie, who is currently working on a project with the Alliance for Responsible Mining and WWF to help Maroon miners adopt mercury-free mining methods. “Right now, the government doesn’t have jobs for people in the interior,” Abielie adds.

But even if such alternatives succeed, Aloema’s bill faces another challenge: it ruffles the feathers of Suriname’s most powerful individuals, many of whom own the gold concessions where Brazilians and Maroons work. Among them is Suriname’s current vice president, Ronnie Brunswijk, a former gold baron and alleged criminal who donated his concessions before taking office.

“I’m happy Ronny [Aloema] is trying to do this, but I’d like to speak to him to make sure he knows what he’s doing,” Sleur says. “Because he is fresh, he’s still clean … Believe me, I don’t want to discourage him, but I want him to realize it’s a very difficult job.”

But Aloema said he remains determined. He said he’ll risk fighting the powerful forces that control gold mining and mercury flows in Suriname because trying to make a change is the right thing to do.

“Years from now,” he said, “if my grandchildren ask me, ‘what did I do’? I need to be able to say, ‘I tried.’”

Banner image: Illegal gold mining in Natuur Park, Brownsberg, about 130 km south of Paramarino, Suriname’s capital city. Image by Erlan Sleur.

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