27 January 1997

In search of El Dorado, again: mining and tribal people in Suriname

In anticipation of declining revenues from bauxite, the Surinamese Government has turned its attention to the potential revenues to be had from the exploitation of gold. The majority of these (and future) activities are taking place in the rainforest interior of the country. The interior is also the ancestral home of Indigenous peoples and Maroons, who have repeatedly voiced their opposition to the granting of mining and other concessions on their territories.

If Suriname continues in its present direction it will begin to resemble neighbouring Guyana, where a large proportion of the country has been granted in concession to mining and logging multinationals. However, a major difference between Suriname and Guyana is the fact that Guyana, albeit inadequately, has recognized that Indigenous peoples have some form of land rights. In Suriname, Indigenous peoples and Maroons are without even the most rudimentary legal protections and are routinely ignored by the Government when granting concessions.

The recently elected Government of Suriname is doing all it can to attract foreign investment in the gold sector. In November of 1996, a 12 page advertising supplement was placed in the Mining Journal, extolling the benefits of mining in Suriname. It was paid for by mining companies, Golden Star Resources and Cambior who are partners in the Gros Rosebel concession. The Government is also in the process of drafting a Foreign Investment Law, that, by early accounts, is extremely favourable to resource exploitation companies and rewriting the mining law to attract further investment.

On 25 - 26 January 1997, Suriname organized and hosted a Conference entitled the "Suriname Mining Conference '97;" as with the Mining Journal advertisement, it was paid for by mining companies. This Conference was attended by the President, various ministers, and all key persons in the mining sector. One 40 minute session was conducted on the impact of mining on local communities and the environment, half of which was presented by the head of the Government's Geology and Mines Service, who pointed out the benefits of industrial mining for local communities.

The Companies Involved

Presently, Suriname is host to: Canadian companies, Golden Star Resources (based in Denver, Colorado), Cambior, Canarc and Blue Ribbon. A small Canadian-Surinamese owned company called Triangle Mining is also conducting alluvial mining with a mobile dredge approximately 70 km south of the capital. A number of smaller Surinamese companies and small scale operators, including Indigenous peoples and Maroons, are also active. Small-scale mining is presently accounting for the majority of gold production and the majority of environmental degradation - especially mercury contamination and fouling of water sources - health - malaria is reaching epidemic proportions in parts of the interior - and social problems in the interior.

Golden Star and Cambior are most active in Suriname at this time. These companies are partners in the infamous OMAI mine in Guyana, which dumped up to 4 million cubic litres of cyanide- and heavy metal-laced waste into the Essequibo river in 1995, prompting the Guyana Government to declare the area an environmental disaster zone. The Omai mine is described on the agenda of the Suriname Mining Conference as "Omai: From Dream to Reality." As announced by Surinamese President Wijdenbosch, these companies are presently planning to begin construction on a second Omai mine in the Gros Rosebel concession in June or July of 1997. They are also planning on relocating the Maroon community of Nieuw Koffiekamp in the process. Nieuw Koffiekamp was not consulted or even informed about the granting of the concession.

The people of Nieuw Koffiekamp were forcibly relocated in the mid-1960's to make way for a hydroelectric dam that was constructed to power the bauxite refining operations of US company, ALCOA. Since Golden Star began exploration activities in 1994, constructing a camp less than 1 km from the village, community leaders have complained that they have been denied access to their subsistence gardens, hunting and fishing areas and other places where they conduct economic activities like small-scale mining and that they are surrounded by armed guards.

The people also complain that Golden Star security guards and the heavily armed police that work with them have used live ammunition to intimidate them and frighten them away from areas in which the company wants to work. Golden Star have denied that any shooting incidents have occured, except for on one occassion, which they claim is the only such occurence. Other human rights violations have also been alleged. Surinamese human rights organization, Moiwana '86, states that in its estimation at least 8 separate violations of the American Convention on Human Rights, including the right to humane treatment, have occured since Golden Star arrived near Nieuw Koffiekamp.

The community has consistently stated that a second relocation is out of the question and that if anyone should leave it should be the company. However, both the company and the Government have publicly stated that it is "inevitable" that the community will be relocated again. The latest development is the establishment of a "Task Force" to examine the situation and negotiate a settlement. This Task Force, which will use the good offices of the Organisation of American States Special Misson to Suriname, is stacked with persons who have already made up their minds that the community must be relocated. Consequently, the only negotiated settlement possible is a relocation compensation agreement. The issue of whether the community consents to relocation appears to be irrelevant.

The community is being subjected to a great deal of pressure from various sources, including from former military dictator, Desi Bouterse, who is the Chairman of the ruling National Democratic Party. Bouterse, whose rule was characterised by a period of gross and systematic violations of human rights, apparently has long been an ally of Golden Star. It was recently revealed by the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname that almost a year before NDP came to power, Bouterse played a role in forcing the Indigenous community (Trio) of Kwamalasemutu, one of the largest in Suriname, to accept Golden Star's presence on their territory.

In a recent press release the people of Kwamalasemutu demanded that Golden Star leave their land and never return. They also demanded that their rights to own and control their traditional territory be legally recognized and respected. They stated that they had been tricked into signing a letter stating that they had no objection to a concession being granted in favour of NaNa Resources, a Surinamese mining company with close links to Bouterse. NaNa Resources told village leaders that it was acting on behalf of Golden Star. Golden Star arrived later to construct a landing strip and to begin prospecting activies. These activities also took place in or near a Nature Reserve, which is home to the endangered Oko Pipi frog. Villagers also say that Golden Star's activities polluted water sources in the area.

Golden Star technicians were recently discovered working near the Indigenous village of Casipora. When village leaders demanded that they leave their land, a Golden Star employee threatened to bring Bouterse to the village to put them in line as they had with uncooperative villagers in Kwamalasemutu.

Golden Star recently announced favourable drilling results from a site called Antino, which is located in the Benzdorp concession in the South-east of the country. This concession, optioned by Golden Star from NaNa Resources, also includes the Indigenous community (Wayana) of Kawemhakan. The community was not informed about the granting of the concession. The son of the Wayana headman was recently in Washington DC, where he asked for international support in dealing with the threat to his people posed by Golden Star. Golden Star claims to have an agreement with the Wayana. The Wayana say that they were given some presents by Golden Star in return for allowing them to work on their land, that Golden Star did not explain what they wanted to do there and that they want Golden Star to leave their land.

Canadian companies Canarc and Blue Ribbon are also active in or near the Benzdorp concession. Canarc has also claimed to have found positive indications of commercial quantities of gold in their property that abuts Golden Star's Antino property. Blue Ribbon holds six concessions in various regions of Suriname. It has signed an agreement with traditional Matawi Maroon leader, Granman Lafanti to work in Matawi territory. They recently announded positive results in two of their concessions in Matawi territory.

The Newcomers

US company, Homestake Mining is not present in Suriname yet, but all indications point to the fact that it is in the process of acquiring a concession. Homestake mining is notorious for its lengthy dispute with the Lakota people in the United States over mining in their sacred Black Hills. Rumors are also circulating that Canadian giant, Placer Dome is considering returning to Suriname. A number of unnamed companies are also said to be lining up to get concessions in Suriname.

Most disturbingly, reliable sources state that Australian mining giant, Broken Hill Property Co. (BHP) is seeking a concession in Suriname to complement those it holds in Guyana and French Guiana. In Guyana, it has entered into a joint venture with Golden Star. BHP is well know for it abuse of Indigenous peoples in Australia and the infamous OK Tedi gold/copper mine in Papua New Guinea. Apart from generating considerable conflict with Indigenous land owners, the OK Tedi mine has been the site of at least one major cyanide spill and the cause of severe pollution in the 1100 km long Fly river. BHP and its partners in OK Tedi, until forced to change their policy by the PNG government, had been dumping untreated toxic mine wastes directly into the river. High levels of cyanide and heavy metals were detected up to 80 km downstream from the mine.

Indigenous Peoples and Maroons

Indigenous peoples and Maroons have vigorously opposed the hand out of mining and logging concessions on their lands and territories. At a recent Gran Krutu (Great Gathering), Indigenous and Maroon leaders demanded that the granting of concessions cease and activities in existing concessions be suspended until their land rights have been legally recognized. They stated that "Our lands are of fundamental importance for our survival as Indigenous and Tribal peoples. Without the land, forests and rivers there are no trees, birds, animals and fish and we as Indigenous and Maroon peoples will not be able to survive."

With regard to the activities of Golden Star Resources, the Indigenous and Maroon leaders demanded "that the activities of this company are stopped until we are fully aware of the influence of its activities in our living-areas and until our land rights are legally recognized and our territories soundly demarcated." They expressed disbelief and outrage that the Government could grant hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to Golden Star, while the Government refused to legally recognize their rights to even one hectare of their ancestral land.

Suriname remains the only country in the Western hemisphere that does not legally recognize some form of land rights for Indigenous peoples. A Commission has been established by the Government to make recommendations on land rights, but the prospects for acceptable progress are limited. This Commission has been condemned by the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname for not incorporating Indigenous and Maroon participation and for failing to use international standards as the basis for its work. They stated that the Commission and the Government must publicly accept that Indigenous peoples and Maroons have rights to own the land that they occupy and use and then go about implementing this principle of international law. Anything less is unacceptable and unconstructive.


This rush into the gold sector is cause for great concern. Suriname contains one of the last relatively untouched areas of the Amazon rainforest with significant biological diversity and a substantial population of endemic species. Suriname has yet to write and implement an environmental law that permits an effective regulation of industrial resource exploitation activities, nor can it hope to be able to monitor the activities of multinationals and others. An environmental monitoring institute is being considered - a preliminary worshop was held 23-24 January 1997 - but concrete commitments have yet to be made. Moreover, as with the forestry service, the Geology and Mines Service is understaffed, underqualified and lacking financial and technical resources. Contracts may seem strong concerning environmental and human rights protections, but both the Government and the companies know that these provisions cannot or will not be monitored or enforced.

Presently, the situation is one in which the Government is rushing headlong into resource exploitation, both logging and mining, without adequate environmental and human rights safeguards in place. Monitoring and enforcement capacity are virtually nonexistent. The reputations of the companies involved does not inspire confidence either. The land and other rights of Indigenous peoples and Maroons have yet to be legally recognized and the Government appears unwilling to use international standards as the basis for recognizing these rights. All of this adds up to a recipe for disaster for the Indigenous peoples, Maroons and environment.

For further information please contact:

Forest Peoples Programme
1c, Fosseway Business Centre
Straford Road
GL56 9NQ
Ph. 44.1608.652.893

Forest Peoples Programme / World Rainforest Movement (UK Office) 1c Fosseway Business Center, Stratford Road, Moreton in Marsh, GL56 9NQ, UK Tel: 44 (0)i608 652893 Fax: 44 (0) 1608 652878 Email:

The World Rainforest Movement's International Secretariat is at: Casilla de Correo 1539, Montevideo, Uruguay Tel: 598 2 496192 Fax: 598 2 419222 Email: