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Suriname preparing to clear Amazon for agriculture, documents suggest

  • The government of Suriname is weighing a series of land deals that would allow the Ministry of Agriculture and a group of private entities to carry out agriculture, livestock and aquaculture activities on hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, most of it Amazon Rainforest.
  • The Amazon covers 93% of Suriname’s total land area, making agricultural development an especially sensitive issue in the country.
  • Five private entities are involved in the deals, with an interest in commodities like soy and cashews.

The government of Suriname has made plans to appropriate a massive stretch of the Amazon Rainforest for projects related to agriculture and livestock. If finalized, the deal could allow unprecedented deforestation and challenge a campaign by Indigenous communities to win rights to ancestral territory.

The land deals under consideration would grant the Ministry of Agriculture and a group of private entities the ability to carry out “agriculture, livestock and aquaculture” activities on hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, most of it Amazon Rainforest, according to documents reviewed by Mongabay, which include maps and correspondence between several government offices.

The Ministry of Agriculture is interested in around 354,836 hectares (876,819 acres) of land across several districts, according to the documents, which are dated to September 2022. Private land developers are interested in another estimated 10,868 hectares (26,855 acres). If deforested, it would represent around a 2% loss of the country’s total forest cover.

“Forest and freshwater ecosystems are already affected by [illegal] gold mining. Large-scale agriculture should not become a second driver of deforestation,” WWF-Guianas director David Singh told Mongabay.

Some of the plots are located in the northern Coronie and Nickerie districts, where some of the land is already degraded from previous agricultural development. But others are located in the south, in Sipaliwini, an expansive and largely uninhabited district with intact primary forest.

In the past, the ministry has made similar requests for plots for training, experiments and pilot programs for sustainable agriculture, several NGOs told Mongabay. But those kinds of activities don’t usually require hundreds of thousands of hectares of land.

The land deals also look similar to proposals made by Mennonite farmers looking to relocate from other parts of Latin America to develop thousands of hectares of industrial agriculture. But representatives for the company overseeing the Mennonites’ relocation, Terra Invest, confirmed this is a different venture from theirs.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Land Policy and Forest Management didn’t respond to a request for comment about how they ultimately intend to use the land. Several environmental groups said they’re unsure what the ministries’ plans are and expressed frustration at the lack of transparency.

In the documents, the ministries discuss plans for land surveys and figurative mapping. The documents show that the office of President Chan Santokhi is also involved in the process, in some cases sending “corrected” versions of the maps for “making the sites available” to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“Conversion of what seems like 2% of state-owned forest land to other purposes is a very significant matter and is best undertaken under a clear, set-out national land use policy and plan that benefits from wide stakeholder consultations,” Singh said.

The land deals come at a time when Santokhi’s government is struggling to combat debt and inflation that have exacerbated food insecurity in the country and led to nationwide protests. Expanding the agricultural sector has been offered up as a solution to the problem, as it would not only create jobs and boost exports but also increase domestic food production.

Rainforest covers 93% of Suriname’s total land area. (Photo courtesy of David Evers/Flickr)

Complicating the situation is the fact that the Amazon Rainforest covers 93% of Suriname’s total land area. Because Suriname is one of the only countries in the world with a carbon-negative economy, meaning it absorbs more CO2 than it emits, conservation groups and Indigenous communities are keeping a close eye on where the government is expanding.

The president’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

“Agricultural development in the rainforest — I don’t even think they have a strategy there,” said Maria Josée Artist, who works on community development for the Association of Indigenous Village Heads in Suriname (VIDS). “They haven’t thought it through. It’s only because of money. They need financing for the national economy.”

A few of the areas that interest the Ministry of Agriculture have preexisting logging concessions, according to the documents. But most of them have no other restrictions or activity. Some areas overlap with land occupied by Indigenous communities that have spent years trying to win ancestral rights to their territories. Expanding the agricultural frontier would complicate those efforts, Artist and other Indigenous representatives told Mongabay.

“Traditional industrial-scale agriculture will lead to complete deforestation,” Singh said, “with all the consequences for flora and fauna and communities living in harmony with the forest.”

The private sector looks for land, too

Five private entities have also expressed interest in developing agriculture, livestock and aquaculture activities, according to the documents. The combined area of around 10,868 hectares is located in the district of Sipaliwini. Each entity is registered as a stichting, or “foundation,” a legal setup that provides limited liability to members and allows for easy transfer of ownership.

All of these stichtings are connected to a resident named Radjesh Ramgolam, who identified himself to Mongabay as a land broker. The stichtings are the Kovu & Kiara Foundation, Toolit Asset Management Foundation, Braeburn Apple Foundation, and Togliatti Asset Management Foundation.

Another stichting, the Gaziantep Asset Management Foundation, is connected to both Ramgolam and someone named Vinodjkumar Sowdager.

The stichtings are registered to addresses in the capital, Paramaribo, and the district of Wanica, which is just outside the capital. None of the foundations have a social media presence or website.

The requests for land were divided up between several stichtings because the area of interest is too big, Ramgolam told Mongabay over the phone, and could create “problems” with the government. He didn’t comment on what kinds of problems, only that land deals can be “sensitive.”

The land deals were dated to January 2022 and were still in discussion as recently as this July. Messages from President Santokhi’s office, reviewed by Mongabay, specifically inquire about an update on their progress. “You are kindly requested to provide the president with information regarding the status of the application,” one said.

Ramgolam said he plans to divide the land into pieces as a business venture. He mentioned growing soy and cashews but declined to comment further for this article.

Banner image: An unfinished road through the rainforest in Suriname. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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