Pubdate: Sun, 02 Sep 2001
Source: The Herald-Sun (NC)
Copyright: 2001 The Herald-Sun
Author: Ian James (AP)


BROWNSBERG NATURE PARK, Suriname -- In the shade of the jungle, bright blue 
butterflies float between the trees, ferns and vines. Shafts of sunlight 
illuminate the park through the canopy, brightening a green world that 
reverberates with the cries of parrots and toucans.

Then, suddenly, the rain forest gives way to a treeless wasteland -- piles 
of rust-colored earth and the water-filled craters of gold mining pits.

The damage from illegal mining stands as an example of the rampant 
lawlessness that prevails throughout Suriname's vast and sparsely populated 
interior, which has come to be called its Wild West.

Mining is only part of the problem. The scarlet ibis is disappearing in 
some areas where impoverished villagers hunt the bird for its meat. It's 
also difficult to guard against drug trafficking, illegal logging, poaching 
and other crimes because the jungle is so immense and largely inaccessible.

"Suriname is a jewel, but it's endangered by modernity," said Dennis Hays, 
who served as U.S. ambassador here until last year. "I always encouraged 
the Surinamese to try to get a handle on the situation."

Doing so has been difficult in this South American country of 63,000 square 
miles covered almost entirely by forests. Most of Suriname's 440,000 people 
are concentrated along the coast. Much of the interior can be reached only 
by canoe, and there is little money to police the area.

Marlene Homoet, the chief police inspector for the interior, has only a 
small force -- for security reasons, she declines to say how small -- with 
no planes or helicopters. Despite some successes, the region is practically 
ungovernable, she said.

"It's a hard job," Homoet said. "We don't have money. What we have is the 
guts, the endurance and the backing of the government."

Suriname, a Dutch colony until 1975, has made great efforts to protect rain 
forests that are some of the most pristine in the world.

In 1998, the government created the 4 million acre Central Suriname Nature 
Reserve, setting aside 10 percent of the country, or an area the size of 
New Jersey.

But only two rangers are permanently assigned to protect it.

"It's uninhabited because nobody's found gold there, but the day that 
someone goes in there and finds gold, there are going to be 10,000 miners 
in there within six months," Hays said.

Just Essed, general manager of Brownsberg Nature Park, said the miners are 
persistent. "It's a pity that we tried to save a small piece of the jungle 
for educational reasons and it is attacked by people living around the 
area," he said. "We chased them away several times, but they always come back."

The lawlessness is fed by poverty among descendants of escaped African 
slaves known as Maroons, who make up most of the interior's population. By 
many accounts, corruption also contributes to the problem.

"If you get up, you don't have work, you don't have anything to eat, then 
you don't have any choice but to do crime," said Ronnie Brunswijk, who led 
a bush war from 1986-92 seeking greater rights for Maroons.

He blames the lack of opportunity in part on the government's failure to 
fully implement accords that ended the war.

A Dutch court in 1999 sentenced Brunswijk to eight years in prison for 
cocaine trafficking. He insists he is innocent and remains free in 
Suriname, where he says he earns his income from a soccer club he owns, 
along with legal mining and logging concessions.

The U.N. Drug Control Program estimates 22 tons of cocaine is shipped 
through Suriname to Europe each year. Remote dirt roads serve as airstrips 
for small planes that arrive from Brazil and Venezuela to drop off 
Colombian drug shipments.

Thousands of Brazilian miners, or "garimpeiros," also work throughout the 
interior, tearing up the forest and contaminating rivers with the mercury 
they use to separate gold from ore. They bring another dimension of 
lawlessness, using gold dust as currency and handguns as insurance.

Long before Brownsberg Nature Park was established in 1969, Surinamese were 
panning for gold in the area. But the mining began to cause serious harm in 
1998 when Brazilians arrived with diesel-powered pumps and other machinery, 
said Harrold A. Sijlbing, director of the Foundation for Nature 
Conservation in Suriname, which owns the 21,000-acre park 80 miles south of 

Last year, Brazilian miners shot and killed one Surinamese miner and 
wounded another, said park ranger Elton Bellamy, who is supposed to protect 
the area with just two other rangers.

Police have repeatedly arrested miners for working in the park, but they 
keep returning. The land scarred by mining is of no use to the park, and 
Sijlbing's foundation has proposed to give 2,500 acres of it back to the 
government in exchange for other untouched lands south of the park.

"We want to give the problem to the government," he said. "We don't want it 

To guard against illegal logging, Suriname's Foundation for Forest 
Management and Production Control plans to begin using satellite images, 
expand its work force from 100 to 150 people and raise funds to build new 
field stations.

Otherwise, "you can't really exercise control over such a big territory," 
said foundation chief Iwan Krolis. "We can only tell what is the truth when 
we are in the forest."
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