Small-scale gold mining in Suriname goes back as far as the early 1700s, when the first five ounces of gold dust were exported to the Netherlands. However, the industry did not really pick up as a viable means of making a living until over a century later, when developments to support the industry began to take root. Then in the 1970s and 80s, a veritable gold rush took place, as minimal regulations on mining allowed for necessary funds to support the guerrilla activity of political upheaval, and isolated rainforest communities needed a way to import food, supplies and equipment.
The gold industry—particularly small-scale mining, which is understood to be “characterized by a labor force that is not formally trained in mining and uses rudimentary techniques for prospecting, extracting, and processing of gold”—is good for the economy, and provides much-needed work opportunities for the Surinamese people. Some living in the Maroon communities and the large numbers of Brazilian immigrants benefit, at least monetarily speaking, from the entire mining service economy. This includes not just the miners themselves but also the “women who sell food and cigarettes in the mining area, the owners of small stores, cooks, carpenters, sex workers, and transport providers, among others.” The industry supports the economies of several small forest villages that have few other options for creating income.
Despite certain economic advantages, gold mining is severely problematic for almost every other sector of life in Surinamese communities, as it has adverse physical, health, and environmental effects for all those connected to the mining industry and beyond. Small-scale mining causes serious land degradation by creating swamps, open craters, and major pollution through the use of oil and toxic substances. Large amounts of standing water create fertile beds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, and a severely lacking public health system allows for frequent malaria transmission.
In addition, the mining system creates significant amounts of water pollution, forcing villagers to travel long distances to source clean drinking water. This also significantly reduces the availability of fish, which generally serve as the only means for protein. Furthermore, small-scale miners use a technique that involves mercury, meaning that about 10 to 20,000 kilograms of mercury are released into Suriname’s air and ecosystem on an annual basis. Because the majority of workers are young men, the sex industry is rampant in mining areas, leading to widespread sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.
There are also socioeconomic issues that come along with the instability of the mining industry. With very little regulation and control in place, incomes are variable and unreliable, and rampant crime and violence lead to both chaos and insecurity.
The active players in this debacle are:
+The wider gold industry
+The miners themselves
+Miners’ families + communities
+Indigenous peoples and Maroons that are not involved in mining
+Natural environment + ecosystems
So is the trade-off worth it?
While the financial benefits associated with mining disappear soon after mining activities have ceased, the negative environmental, health, and social implications remain long after miners have left the area. How do we weigh the cost-benefits of a system that provides financial resources, but simultaneously manages to destroy and deplete so many paramount factors of life? Overall, it seems as though gold-mining in Suriname is not sustainably life-giving, unless the industry makes some radical changes in its behavior.
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