|An Ethical Minefield
Taking one last look
at the well-stocked shelves of the Antino shop where a simple pack of
cornflakes costs just under a gramme of gold or a bottle of Whisky will
cost you four, it’s so clear who the real winners in this game
are. The Garimpieros toil day-in-day-out relentlessly scouring the earth
locked into the primary world of commerce that is gold mining territory.
Knee-deep in mud or blasting the banks with water-jets, sieving sediment
on rickety sluices, or meticulously panning for every last grain of
gold, their hard-won gains are easily lost on the inflated prices of
imported goods, and even easier in the surreally situated, colourfully-lit
brothels that pump out angry rap from the heart of the forest. It's
an edgy micro-world for them but although they are commonly called the
mules of this work, they are also the masters of endurance. Spending
months or years in shanty-built camps they even bring their own satellites
to while away long evenings watching absurdly dramatic Brazilian soaps
on flickering TV sets. Unfortunately though, as illegal immigrants their
presence, and all this activity, seems to lend little to the much needed
social infrastructure to the interior of this country, other than the
few local individuals that come and go.
So this morning , having spent the whole of yesterday in the grips of
"gold fever", totally in awe at the whole process, we asked Henk and
his foreman Gio to further clarify their position in an industry that
is fraught with problems. In researching the 'mining issue' we were
led to believe that Henk was quite a well-known figure in the recent
developments of the mining industry in Suriname. As an advisor/consultant
to the large scale explorative effort of Gold Star (a Canadian Company)
he was mixed up with the mistakes made in the Nieuw Koffiecamp saga.
Nieuw Koffiecamp is a transmigration village for the reluctant re-location
of the Saramacca community. Having been re-settled after the building
of the dam that created Brokopondo Lake, that was built to power the
Bauxite industry, they were then beset with the new and equally depressing
reality of their land rights being sold to outsiders without them being
consulted. As a man from the city, Henk is a savvy businessman and sees
the future development of Suriname 'as a whole' not necessarily partial
to the conservation principles that we are sensitive to. Sadly that
development has often been at the expense of the forest peoples who
have little or no land-rights. The conflicts of interest in Nieuw Koffiecamp
are still alive and we will be looking into them in more detail when
we visit in the coming days. Ironically Gio, 'The Sheriff' - Henk's
right-hand-man - is from Nieuw Koffiecamp, and was one of the locals
spearheading resistance to the sell-out of his homelands. When asked
how he came to be working in Antino with Henk, he frankly stated "If
you can't beat them, join them ... to beat them". As shrewd as his boss,
at least he is empowering himself with knowledge that could help him
and his people take more control of their own destiny.
Thanking Henk for his hospitality and eye-opening tour of his concession
we jumped on the back of Gio's ATV for the last hair-raising, arse-numbing
ride, speeding along the roller coaster jungle tracks back to the river.
Arriving exhilarated, shaken and splattered with mud we gave him hearty
handshakes, thanked him for sharing a glimpse of his wild world with
us, and then jumped into our waiting boat.
Arriving late in the afternoon at the Wayana village of Kwamahaken with
Anthropologist Karin Boven, our reception was jubilant. None of the
usual reticence of riverside Indian communities, Karin, having lived
with the Wayana here for three years, was the perfect introduction.
The warm greetings were unanimous, but somewhat helped by the copious
amounts of Kasiri beer being drunk in celebration of Keti Koti, or emancipation
day. Here we look forward to hearing how this community is dealing with
the effects of gold mining on its doorstep. I hope their hangovers aren't
"The Real Winners"