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The Gold Rush That Is Destroying Suriname's Rainforest

Suriname's Krikie Nigi gold camp represents the Platonic ideal of environmental devastation. From our car window, we see mud piles, craters filled with foaming mercury-contaminated water, the occasional scorched tree. Artisanal mining crews move in...
July 17, 2012, 1:35pm

Suriname's Krikie Nigi gold camp represents the Platonic ideal of environmental devastation. From our car window, we see mud piles, craters filled with foaming mercury-contaminated water, the occasional scorched tree. Artisanal mining crews move in swarms, working through the wreckage in search of gold dust. Every speck of dirt on the site has been dug up and fed through a gold sluice. Groups of teenagers scratch at the earth around the camp's perimeter with rusted-out excavators, like demented landscapers creating a vision of hell.

All this was once unspoiled rainforest. Now it's the latest victim in the gold rush that is transforming Suriname into a magnet for fortune seekers from around the world. An estimated 20,000 small-scale miners work within Suriname's borders, and supporting these DIY gold seekers are legions of shop owners, cooks, and drivers. The country’s gold industry produces roughly 16.5 metric tons of gold per year while poisoning local water supplies and laying waste to untold acres of rainforest. We've come to Suriname to see the depredation for ourselves, and to find out if anyone is actually getting rich from the boom.

As our car rolls into the camp, we pass an olive-skinned woman ambling down the dirt road. She carries a blue parasol in one hand and a cigarillo in the other. Gilbert, our local guide and a miner himself, leans out the window and greets her in Portuguese.

Welcome to the new Suriname. They may not have nature for much longer, but at least they have Brazilian prostitutes.

Suriname sits between Guyana and French Guiana on the northeast corner of South America. In the old days, this region was known as “The Wild Coast,” and the Dutch and British spent the first half of the 17th century battling over it. The Dutch won control of Suriname in 1667 and turned it into a plantation state for growing coffee, cacao, and other commodities that Europeans valued more than human life and dignity. For nearly two and a half centuries, Dutch plantation masters staffed their colony with coerced laborers from the furthest reaches of their colonial empire. This explains why Suriname's population of 560,000 remains so diverse today: Most folks here are descendants of some combination of West African slaves, North Indian bonded laborers, and Javanese and Chinese “coolies.”

Except for a mini-rush at the turn of the 20th century, gold mining remained a small industry in Suriname throughout the Dutch era. The sector took a dip while Suriname struggled to gain independence in the 1960s and 70s before finally winning it in 1975. Then, in the 80s and 90s, the gold trade sprang to life in response to the one-two punch of widespread rural poverty resulting from an eight-year civil war and an influx of Brazilian gold miners with little regard for national borders. Things continued to heat up in the early 2000s, when our collective post-9/11 freak out sent the global demand for gold through the roof. Prices soared, and a new crop of small-scale miners—guys with sluicing equipment and not much else—headed into the bush to dig their way to a brighter future.

We get out of the car when we see the monkey, who passes his days chained to a miniature lean-to. The monkey's shelter is well built in comparison to the shacks where the miners live, proof that somebody in the camp really loves the little guy. When we approach him, he makes a hugging gesture.

“Pet him,” says a passing miner. “He likes that!”

We decline.

Krikie Nigi’s “Chinese Store,” which sells everything from breakfast cereal to mercury, is built tougher than the monkey cage. Its walls are crafted from red aluminum. Bars cover the windows and an industrial lock hangs on its gridiron door.

Pretty much every gold camp in Suriname has a Chinese store, and all are similarly fortified. If shit goes down, they lock down. The stores are owned and operated by recent immigrants known colloquially as echte Chinezen, which is Dutch for “real Chinese.” This distinguishes them from Chinese-Surinamers, whose ancestors came to the country back in the 19th century.

Echte Chinezen draw a lot of hostility because they are the entrepreneurs behind the very profitable supply chain that keeps Suriname's miners working and fed. We’ve seen the Chinese everywhere, even in the most remote gold camps. One moonlit night, while bathing in a river that provides miners with their only access point to the Gunsi gold camp, we watched a sputtering 1950s-era riverboat pull up to the shore. Without a word, the boat's Chinese captain handed over three barrels of fuel to an Amerindian concession manager waiting on the river bank, then returned to his vessel and headed back down river, presumably to make his next delivery.

Krikie Nigi's Chinese Store is different from many others because it accepts currency. Shops in the more isolated camps only accept gold, and the price gouging is obscene. A can of Coke can cost anywhere between one to five decigrams ($5 to $25) depending on how far from civilization you get—and in a country with only a couple of asphalt roads you can get pretty far from civilization. But Krikie Nigi is a smooth two-hour drive from the capital city of Paramaribo, which makes it an attractive location for part-time crews who prefer paying for their soft drinks with Surinamese dollars. Forty-something Jos and and his 15-year-old stepson Cedric are one such crew, and we encounter them working a pit at the edge of the camp.

Cedric and Jos are of Maroon descent, which means that their forefathers were runaway slaves who carved out a new society in the rainforest. Much of Suriname's mining is done on land that is informally owned by Maroons (whether or not these claims are legal is debatable) and miners are expected to pay 10 percent of their gold yield to the Maroon families that allow them to set up shop. Cedric and Jos are getting a free ride, since this part of Krikie Nigi is under the control of Jos's extended family.

Cedric and Jos are weekend warriors. They live in Paramaribo, but are spending Cedric's spring break running a small-scale mine. It's almost cute to see them working together: While Jos uses his bare hands to smear mercury onto the gold sluice, Cedric dives into the contaminated pit water to adjust the suck pump. Neither seems convinced that they will strike it rich this time out, but they are optimistic about finding enough gold to cover their equipment and petrol costs. Of course, they could get lucky. Jos heard someone found 100 grams last week. Right here in Krikie Nigi.

We do not meet any millionaire miners at Krikie Nigi, or at any of the other gold camps we visit in Suriname. We do hear rumors about concession owners growing fat off their land from the comfort of their Paramaribo mansions, and about crews that make hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single strike only to piss away their earnings in a few months. Many of the miners we meet use their gold mining to supplement an income made up of low-wage day labor in Paramaribo. Others dig because it beats having no job at all. A miner's business model (dig a pit, hope for the best) may not be as well thought-out as its echte Chinese equivalent (figure out what people need, charge a lot for it), but it has its own go-for-broke appeal. In a country like Suriname, where by some estimates roughly 60 percent of the urban population lives below the poverty line, any chance to strike it rich, no matter how slim, is too tempting to turn down.

The road out of the Krikie Nigi is littered with broken-down excavators. Their vine-choked bodies serve as monuments, not only to the union of inexperienced labor and technology that is the engine of the gold rush, but to the unrealized dreams of so many mining crews. We turn off the dirt road and aim our car toward civilization.

We stop at a Chinese store/restaurant on our way back to Paramaribo. As we eat our overpriced fried rice, the owners eye us anxiously from behind their metal cage. A pair of roly-poly Brazilian prostitutes sit at the table next to us. One cuddles a huge pink teddy bear, a gift from a client. They're asking everyone who comes through if they can bum a ride to the next gold camp, where they hear there's more money to be made.

All words and photos by Kel O'Neill and Eline Jongsma.

Kel O'Neill and Eline Jongsma are the directors of Empire_, a documentary series about the unintended consequences of Dutch colonialism. Follow their trip around the world at andwatch a trailer for their film about Suriname here._