By Madhawi Ramdin, co-founder and project coordinator at Equal Chances@Green Development (NGO) and 2008 Americas Project Fellow
Development thinking has undergone a shift from “pursuing conservation” to promoting “sustainabledevelopment” practices. “Conservation” is understood as preserving and protecting resources, while “sustainable development” advocates a wise use of resources in order to ensure their availability for future generations. In order to achieve sustainable development, international policies pursue sustainable land use, meaning it is ecologically, economically, and socially sound and accepted by the local communities. At the local level, sustainable land use can be achieved through reliable institutional, legal and organizational systems. In this sense, the state plays an important role given that through its strategic policy choices it is able to influence behavior to promote sustainability. Therefore, stakeholders are increasingly aware of the importance of strategic policy choices. This awareness is evidenced by the attention now given to measures such as payment for environmental services, forest financing and changes to existing international trade regimes that reflect sustainable development practices.
Today, although local communities, the state, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector are convinced of the importance of implementing sustainable development, their views on how to achieve this differ significantly. For example, while road construction may result in deforestation and lead to opposition from environmental nongovernmental organizations, it will also increase access to markets and thus may have support from local communities and the private sector. However, support from the local communities is not a given, as increased contact with urban areas may result in pressure on their traditional culture and lifestyle; therefore, they may perceive infrastructure interventions as conflicting with their community goals. For example, the indigenous villages of Redi Doti, Pierre Kondre and Cassipora, located relatively close to urban Paramaribo, until now have been somewhat successful in preserving some of their traditional culture and keeping gold mining activities at bay. In interviews I conducted during field work between 2012 and 2014, the communities indicated that an overarching goal is to preserve key aspects of their traditional lifestyle, including their language, music, rituals and handicrafts. Nevertheless, their traditional culture is under threat from many sources. Internally, many villagers complete school in the capital, and choose to stay in the city rather than return to their villages.
Communities are also facing pressures from outside. In 2012, the road from Paramaribo to the town of Powakka was reconstructed, with plans to build a new bridge over the Suriname River. Unfortunately, this infrastructure work is being carried out without the required assessments, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment, the Strategic Environmental Assessment or the Environmental and Socio-Economic Impact Assessment. The indigenous villages, which are located in the immediate vicinity of the project, are being impacted. For example, increased accessibility leads to renewed interest from outsiders to do business in the region or just to visit as tourists. On the other hand, due to this interest preparations are being made to offer the villages round-the-clock electricity instead of the limited electricity access (from 7 p.m. to 12 p.m.) they have lived with for generations.
Suriname, with about 90 percent% of its territory covered in rainforest, is considered a high forest cover, low deforestation region. There is, however, a growing threat from several deforestation drivers like gold mining, logging, bauxite mining, quarrying, hydropower generation and, to a lesser extent, shifting cultivation and roads. These drivers can result in forest degradation at exponential speed and, if uncontrolled, can quickly degrade Suriname to a high forest cover, high deforestation category.
The driving forces of deforestation in Suriname are the result of interactions between socio-political and economic processes affecting land use decisions, which generate problems for the nation and for local communities as they miss an opportunity to extract these resources in a sustainable manner and gain long-term communal benefits.
Forest-dependent communities in Suriname are mostly indigenous and maroon communities. Land ownership in these communities is uncertain, leading to conflicts with the state and sometimes with the private sector. The local communities desire full control of the land, which contradicts the government’s view on ownership or rights to the land. Finding solutions to this dilemma becomes even more problematic when communication and collaboration among government institutions are poor.
Local communities currently have some forestry rights dedicated via community “forestry licenses” issued by the government, which allow them to use forest resources. At the moment there are two types of licenses: a traditional license, which gives the village leader autonomy to make decisions (and even rent the forest to loggers), and a more modern license in which decisions regarding forest exploitation are made by a village commission. Problems also arise when the government issues gold mining and timber concessions in areas considered by the people to be theirs and that they use in their daily lives to hunt, fish, or build houses, etc. Nevertheless, based on a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Surinamese government needs to formally recognize their historical rights of the indigenous populations.
Overall, infrastructure investments can be both a blessing and a curse. A lot depends on how the projects are developed. Sustainable development practices would allow for better relationships between all of the actors, and encourage improvements within government structures to allow indigenous and local communities to fully participate. Infrastructure projects can create new employment opportunities and bring in outside resources and funding to improve life in the villages. However, projects need to consider the ecological, economic, and social impact on local communities.
 A developing country with more than 50 percent forest cover and a deforestation rate below 0.22 percent per year is considered to fall into the high forest cover, low deforestation category. See http://theredddesk.org/encyclopaedia/high-forest-cover-low-deforestation-hfld.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.