Kawemhaken- Voice of the Wayana

Today began early. As we said yesterday, it is a holiday weekend and the village has stockpiled enough Kassiri beer to last the full two days. Last night's Casiri party lulled a little in the middle of the night only to begin again some time before dawn, so we awoke to a dawn chorus of laughter and softly strummed guitars from our neighbours. Just as last Sunday when we were in the village of Peleowime today we are again in the Christianised world of the Wayanas so we began with a visit to the church where the congregation sang hymns of praise to a God that we all felt seemed very remote. It has been a long and fascinating day and one that has shown us the other side of the mining coin.

After church we had arranged a meeting with the village. We once again performed our Runningman ritual, showing the gathered villagers our computer and explaining our work to them. They were particularly interested in the work we had done with the Trio people in Kwamalasamutu and listened intently as we explained that we had offered Granman Asongo there a platform to speak to the world about the issues effecting his people. It was a bit of a race against time as the Kassiri party was beginning again around us as we spoke. But I think we managed to get our message across. We had brought a video message from Captain Sammy of Dtudtu Camp on the Tapanahoni River and were able to show it to his father who was delighted. Then we moved on to more important business.

The Granman here is now very old and senile so in the inter-regnum the village has sort of ad-hoc group of spokesmen and leaders who we managed to coax away from the Kassiri for a couple of hours. We explained to them that on our way to see them we had been entertained by Henk Narrendorp, the owner of a large gold-mining concession which covers their land and the territory around the village. Henk, knowing we were coming here, had freely shown us maps of his concession which clearly shows the village of Kawemhakan (also known as Anapaike) within its territory. We started the meeting by showing them the video of Henk and the map of his concession and then offered them the chance to have their say. This opened up what can only be described as a large can of worms.

The video today shows Seta, a woman from the village appealing to the world, but more importantly to the people of Paramaribo who make the rules in this country, to respect and pay more attention to the rights of the indigenous people in the interior. From what the people of the interior say it seems the people in the capital, the 'ruling elite', for want of a better term, simply do not understand, or care about people like these in Kawemhakan. Their agenda is one of development at all costs ,and the national interest is put before the lives of the remote communities that live in the forests. They should remember however that the people of the forest have only the forest. As one of the men said... 'the forest is our supermarket'. A full transcript of her statement appears at the bottom of today's diary entry. It is a testament to the intimidation that the people here feel that none of the men were able to produce such an eloquent appeal. This statement was made after a long discussion the gist of which I will now try to summarise.

Their starting point is this: the Wayana, like the Trio, were here first, before the Dutch, before the Maroons, before everyone. This is their land, which they need to sustain their way of life. There is simply no other means of sustenance out here. With no education provided by the government and no infrastructure, the way of the forest must remain the backbone of their subsistence. And yet there has been mining going on in this territory for decades, and now there are only two rivers left in the territory they consider to be theirs with water fit to drink and containing fish fit to eat. Across the river on the French side medics have been advising the Wayana people not to eat the fish. If they followed this advice it would wipe out a huge percentage of the protein that these people have traditionally relied upon in their diet, so they continue to eat the fish and suffer the consequences of skin-rashes and vomiting, particularly amongst children, due to Mercury contamination of the waters. On the French side there are many Aukana Maroons and Garimpieros working the creeks that feed into the Lawa. On the Surinamese side they are afraid it will happen to them too. This is particularly worrying to them as the French have, to their credit expelled the Brazilians working in the area. The French have the French military to do this. They have also registered and are controlling the Aukanas mining there. Suriname has no such force and the Wayana fear that they will be next as Brazilians and others move across to their Surinamese territory.

When we showed them the video showing the map of Henk’s concession they clearly had knowledge of Henk. He presently allows, and regulates the Garimpieros working at the northern fringe of his concession, downstream from where we are now. He had, a few years ago, carried out tests upstream from the village, exploring for gold. The people then got very worried and some representatives went to Paramaribo to visit the government’s geo-logical offices to find out about the concessions. They were turned away without being given access to any information. When yesterday we spoke to Henk about his involvement in the Nieuw Kofficamp saga, he agreed with us that a mistake had been made and the people there were not consulted about the Golden Stars' concession on their land. And yet today we hear that these people actually requested information and were denied it. Henk's expressed opinion is that the sovereign government of the country has the right to control its territory. National interest must come before local interest. When we asked him what he would think if an oil strike happened in his back garden in Paramaribo, he clearly said that he would be happy to move as long as the government compensated him. The Saramacca people of Nieuw Koffiecamp were promised compensation, which was not properly delivered. The Wayana were not informed, consulted or compensated for the concession granted covering a proportion of their territory. When we spoke to Granman Gazon of the N'Duka people he had said that the N'Duka own the land and that Brazilians come to them to arrange deals to mine the land. The 10% rule applies and they receive this from the Garimpieros in return for access to the land. What seems uniquely unfair in this situation is that that the Wayana seem to have got absolutely nothing (apart from spoiled land), while Henk gets the 10% of all produce as the owner of the concession.

We told the Wayana that Henk had assured us that he had no immediate plans to develop the area around Kawemhakan, but they were not reassured by this, claiming that he would work the area downstream before moving up to their territory. They are afraid, and feel utterly dis-empowered. They know the world is changing around them and just want a fair chance to take part on a level. They sense that the life of the forest as they have known it for centuries is coming to an end, but have no way to bridge the gap to the future. If their world were to change they would like to mine their own land for themselves. They know that as things stand they do not stand a chance. Henk had Golden Star’s capital to research and develop his concession from exploration to exploitation, and to build the basic infrastructure at Antino, and to make the airstrip and bring in the machinery and the ATVs we had such fun riding on through the forest.

It is a complicated story, and one in which we are not experts. Just as we reported Henk’s account faithfully, so too do we report from Kawemhakan. It’s just not good enough for the people of Paramaribo to overlook the existence of people in the interior. They have as much right to the resources of this country as anyone else. Yes, the country must develop, but not at the expense of the basic rights of some of its people. Just because there are only one thousand Wayana left in existence, does not mean that they can be overlooked around the boardrooms of the capital. In an irony that seems too cruel, Karin our interlocutor here, showed us a small handicraft project that she has been helping to develop here. Last December this project was awarded the first prize in the national crafts awards. The jurors were from Paramaribo. How can Suriname have it both ways. Either it values its many cultures or it doesn't. Which is it to be? As always this medium is a forum for debate. Our observations are what we see and hear, and we invite you to make your comments on the discussion board in the "Virtual Base Camp" on this site. Here is the Transcript of Seta's Statement: So this is the story I will give. An important thing about the village - we make efforts here to do something about the situation. The government is not looking after our village..... I am asking the government to pay attention to our village... that's why I am making a request today. This village has nothing, there are many children. How will they go to school? How will they learn? How will they get educated? How will we develop ourselves? It is not right the way it is now.... That is all I have to say....


The Audience

Map of an Uncertain Future

Translating the Testaments

Small Steps: Sharing their Culture for Cash

Sita (Ikine): A Confident Call for Help

LINKS - Wayana Handicrafts
LINKS - Gold Star and Nieuw Koffiekamp
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