Before I will be getting started on social-environmental issues in Suriname, the first country I have been traveling through, I will try to give you an idea on where actually is and what you should (at least) know about Suriname.
So here come some interesting and, hopefully, easy to remember facts about Suriname:
- Suriname is South America’s smallest independent country with a surface of only 163,821 km2 (but don’t be fooled, that’s still double the size of Austria!)
- About 90% of Suriname’s population (about 550.000 in total) lives on the coastal plain
- About 90% of Suriname’s landmass is covered by rain forest (accessible only by boat or plane)
- The inner city of Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo, is UNESCO world heritage classified (for its colonial wooden houses like these:)
- More than 300.000 Surinamese people live in Holland (that’s a lot for a country of only 550.000 inhabitants!)
- Suriname gained its independence from Holland in 1975 (before that it was a part of Netherlands and also known as “Dutch Guyana”).
- About 400.000 African slaves were brought into Suriname to work on the country’s sugar, coffee, cacao and cotton plantations.
- After slavery was abolished in 1786, the Dutch brought in workers from their own colonies (Indonesia) or British colonies (India) and (to a much lesser extent from) China and the Arab countries, to replace the African workers who no longer were willing to work under the harsh conditions on the plantations. Suriname today is thus an ethnically and culturally very diverse country!
- Suriname is the only country in South America with a “Maroon culture”: former African slaves who fled in the interior of the country during and after slavery, where they settled down along the rivers. They are often called “bush negros” by the city people, which is not as bad a racist term as you would think, since the African descendants living in the cities are actually calling themselves “city negros”. When the Maroons fled into the interior, they got helped by the Amerindian tribes, who had already partly settled in the interior after the first phase of colonization, and who showed the Maroons how to survive in the jungle. Nevertheless, because of lack of food, women and material, the Maroons frequently went back to the coastal plain to raid the plantations and cities to stock up.
- In Paramaribo, a synagogue and a mosque are standing just next to each other. It is often used as an example for the religious and racial peace and tolerance existing in Suriname (I wish the same tolerance could also be practiced in Israel and Palestine!). Nevertheless, when one digs deeper, there do exist certain racial tensions and with the current black government in power, Creole and Maroon interests have definitely been pushed forwards to the detriment of others – depending on what group you are part of, this might be considered as advantageous or disadvantageous.)
- A civil war has paralyzed the country from 1986 to 1992 between the political opposing groups of Desi Bouterse (who had overthrown the democratic government via a military coup and installed a socialist republic in 1980) and Ronnie Brunswijk (who was heading an anti-government rebellion together with the Maroons of the interior). Oddly enough, today both Bouterse and Brunswijk are partners in a coalition government! As a result of the civil war about 20.000 Maroons flew into French Guiana where they still live today, mostly along the Maroni river, which is the border river between French Guiana and Suriname.
- Suriname might become another country where the “resource curse” will strike: it is considered by the World Bank as the potentially 17th richest country in terms of its natural resource wealth: its soils are extremely rich in bauxite, gold and oil! Although general income and wealth of the Surinamese population have increased, no long-term strategy has been put in place by the current or past government on how they’d envision the country’s sustainable development. Instead the government rather reacts with ad-hoc decisions to changing situations and needs, which are often determined by major national and international companies, especially from the energy and mining business.