Information Update
March 6, 1997

The Kabelebo Dam Project in Suriname

On February 24, 1997, Jules Wijdenbosch, President of Suriname announced his government's intention to seek financing for the construction of two hydroelectric dams on the Kabelebo river in West Suriname. The Kabelebo or West Suriname project has been discussed in Suriname for more than 25 years, but it appears that the present government is serious about converting the plans to action. Originally, the Kabelebo project was a wide ranging plan for the industrialization of West Suriname that involved the construction of a rail line, a bauxite smelter, roads and a deep water port on the Corantijn river that forms the border with Guyana.

As presently conceived, the plan is to construct two dams that will provide power for bauxite mining, gold mining, timber processing, possible export and other unspecified activities. The first dam will be located on the Devis Falls on the Kabelebo river approximately 50 kilometres upstream from the juncture of the Kabelebo and Corantijn rivers. The second dam will also be constructed on the Kabelebo, approximately 75 kilometres upstream of the first. The first dam will have a capacity of 500 megawatts and the second of 300 megawatts. A system of dykes, smaller dams and spillways will also be constructed in order to draw water from the Corantijn and Lucie rivers above the dam sites. Estimated costs for the dams are one billion US dollars.

For financing, Suriname is looking to Brazil, the private sector and possibly the World Bank. The President reports that recent high level visits to Brazil concerning the Kabelebo project have been positive and a group of Brazilian investors has shown a great deal of interest in building the dams. German multinational, Siemens has also been mentioned in connection with the project, but it is unknown in what capacity. A Brazilian delegation led by the director of an unnamed Sao Paolo power company is expected in Paramaribo in about four months to discuss the project further. Should the dams be built the private investors will have full ownership rights over the dams and surrounding area and the right to sell electricity to the government. After a specified period of time the Surinamese government will assume full ownership.

Chairman of the ruling National Democratic Party, Desi Bouterse, is presently in China to discuss, among others, the Kabelebo project and the President will raise the subject on a trip to Venezuela. Reporting on Bouterse's visit to China, De Ware Tijd (March 4) stated that China's Minister of Foriegn Affairs "welcomed the idea of a joint Suriname-Brazil- China Kabalebo project and stressed the importance of securing Guyana's involvement." With regard to mining, DWT stated that China had expressed interest in investing in mining projects in Surianme.

Discussion of the Kabelebo project comes in the midst of a concerted effort on the part of the Surinamese government to decrease its dependence on traditional donors, the Netherlands and Belgium in particular, and to seek business relationships and support in Latin America and aid from multilateral donors like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. Suriname is scheduled to submit a funding proposal to the Banks in March of this year. In anticipation of this, the World Bank has recently appointed a team to evaluate Suriname's economy. Brazil, particularly the Northern states of Para and Roraima, was an obvious choice given its proximity and level of industrialization. The present government is also related to the former military dictatorship which ruled Suriname in the 1980's and had a good relationship with the military in Brazil, who are a major force in Brazilian industry.

A cooperation agreement has been discussed in the exploration, exploitation, production and marketing of gold, a fact that is sure to intensify the region's ongoing gold rush. Possible joint ventures with Brazilian and Surinamese businesses was also discussed. This would provide Brazil with tariff free access to the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) market and Suriname access to the MERCOSUR trading block. Certain confidential matters were also discussed in the meetings. One wonders if the proposed Belem-Paramaribo road was one of them.

A number of unanswered questions remain about the Kabelebo project. For instance, no mention was made of the ecological ramifications of the project. The area slated for the project is covered with primary tropical rainforest, high in endemic species and biological diversity, that has yet to be fully surveys and inventoried. Consequently, the reservoir that will accumulate behind the dams will submerge a large area of vital importance to the ecological integrity of the region. The effect that diverting water from the Corantijn and other rivers in the region will have on the ecology of these waterways is also unknown, not to mention the fact that the border between Guyana and Suriname may also be affected leading to increased tension in an already problematic area of their political relationship.

The social and human rights implications for the Indigenous peoples of the region of the associated industrial activity and resource exploitation have also received no attention. The are no known Indigenous communities that will be directly affected by the dams. However, bauxite mining and increased logging activities are certainly a major concern. This is particularly the case for the Kalina (Carib) and Lokono (Arawak) communities of the Wayambo region whose ancestral lands are in the proposed bauxite mining area. The Indigenous communities of Apeura and Section, that have already had serious problems with Indonesian logging company, MUSA, will also be affected.

Suriname continues to routinely disregard Indigenous and Maroon rights when resource exploitation is at issue. Furthermore, Surinamese law is devoid of legal safeguards to assure Indigenous peoples and Maroons secure ownership and control of their lands and territories and mining and logging concessions are frequently granted without their knowledge and consent. The government states that private investors in the Kabelebo project will have full ownership rights (eigendom in Dutch) to the land near and around the dams, but it refuses to recognize Indigenous and Maroon land rights in any form and frequently states that its is impossible to do so because Surinamese law dictates that the State is the sole owner of all land in Suriname. It would appear that the government is willing to make exceptions to this when it suits them.

While agreements have yet to be signed for the financing and construction of the Kabelebo project, we believe that serious questions need to be raised about the wisdom of its implementation, if not Suriname's publicly stated commitment to environmental protection and sustainable development. Certainly the environmental and Indigenous rights issues must be adequately addressed and clarified before the project can proceed further. Increased ties with Brazil may also be problematic, particularly an upgraded trading relationship and cooperation in the gold sector. The prospect of a Belem- Paramaribo road to complement the partially constructed Manaus-Georgetown road is frightening. It may very well lead to the rapid destruction of the rainforest interior of Suriname and the cultural integrity of the Indigenous peoples and Maroons that live therein. Clearly, international scrutiny of the Kabelebo project and closer ties with Brazil, or at least the implications thereof, are required.

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: