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SMALL-SCALE GOLD MINING IN SURINAME

This page is about small-scale gold mining in Suriname, a small country on the Northern tip of the South American continent, situated between Guyana and the French Department of La Guyane. Gold mining has historically been part of the Suriname economy, but today’s number of people involved, the amount of gold extracted, and its social and ecological impacts are unprecedented. National annual gold production increased from about 30 kg yr-1 in 1985 to an estimated 20,000 kg yr-1 today. Almost all gold is extracted by 10,000 to 20,000 small-scale gold miners. I estimate that at least 75 percent of these people are Brazilian migrants called garimpeiros. Maroons, forest peoples of African descent, may represent about 20 percent of Suriname’s small-scale gold mining population. The remaining 5 percent are urban Surinamers from various ethnic groups and migrants from surrounding Latin American (e.g. Columbia) and Caribbean (e.g. Dominican Rep.) countries.

Suriname's gold-bearing areas are part the Guiana shield; an extensive Precambrian greenstone belt that encompasses 415,000 km˛ extending from Venezuela through Guyana, Suriname, and La Guyane into Brazil’s Amazon basin. Gold mining is mainly performed in East Suriname and around the Brokopondo Lake (see map).

The image on the right shows a map of Suriname with the main small-scale gold mining areas

map

I use the term small-scale gold mining to refer to mining characterized by a labor force that is not formally trained in mining and uses rudimentary techniques for prospecting, extracting, and processing of gold. Nowadays almost all small-scale miners in Suriname use mechanized methods, including hydraulic machines, backhoe excavators, tractors, crushers, and other industrial devices. The movies below show how this goes. Most small-scale mining operations in Suriname work informally and without legal documentation, maintaining a large degree of independence from regulations implemented by the national government. There is virtually no supervision or inspection from the national authorities.

 

The movie to the left shows how a Maroon mine worker blasts away the soil with a hydraulic power hose. Next the gold-bearing soil is transported through the suction hose (right) to the sluicebox. Usually about two workers remove stones and debris from the pit to prevent the suction hose to get clogged up. Sella Creek, Suriname.

Small-scale gold mining is of crucial importance to the livelihoods of Maroon families in the Suriname interior. Our survey data from 2002 suggests that in some villages, 70% to 80% of households obtain regular income from mining members of the household or the extended family. These incomes not only include the wages from mine laborers, but also earnings from people working in the mining service economy; women who sell food and cigarettes in the mining area, the owners of small stores, cooks, carpenters, sex workers, and transport providers, among others. It is no exaggeration to say that small-scale gold mining carries the economies of these forest villages. Mining revenues allow for the existence of local stores so that villagers can now buy daily life necessities without traveling for days to the city. Gold mining community members also may contribute -either individually or collectively- in times of adversity. A miner with an outboard motor, for example, may bring someone to the doctor in another village or help out by buying supplies in the city. In other cases gold miners may put together money to keep the village generator running and hence provide electricity.

More images of small-scale gold mining in Suriname

fishing iguana farming fishing
Small-scale gold mining camp Sucking up the soil Washing out the sluice box ATV transport through the forest
While gold mining sustains many families in the interior, it also produces adverse economic, physical, health, and environmental effects for miners, their families, and other members of forest communities. Small-scale gold mining causes soil and landscape degradation by producing open craters, swamps, and soil pollution with oil and toxic chemicals near the processing sites. In addition, open pits with standing water constitute a fertile habitat for disease-carrying mosquitoes. The frequent movement of miners facilitates malaria transmission, and the haphazard intake of medications breeds drug-resistant malaria strains. Failing public health care aggravates the situation.

The pollution and siltation of rivers and creeks affects drinking water, forcing women to go long distances to fetch relatively cleaner water for household use (most villages do not have tap water). They also impact the availability and health of fish, the main source of protein. Sedimentation is not the only water-related problem; Small-scale miners may release between 10,000 to 20,000 kg of mercury into Suriname’s air and aquatic ecosystem annually. Mercury contamination damages the central nervous system of fish consumers near mining areas, with pregnant women and infants being most at risk. Furthermore, strenuous work and unsafe labor conditions cause muscular strains and injuries among miners. The congregation of primarily young men away from home attracts sex-work and related unsafe sexual practices. Sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS are on the rise in the interior as miners take the infections to their homes.

abandoned

In addition to health and environmental impacts, there are socioeconomic problems associated with this type of mining. Variable incomes and unreliable contracts produce economic uncertainty. Crime and violence are rampant, as national authorities are absent from the mining fields and traditional authorities (e.g. village chiefs) cannot control the behavior of especially migrant miners. Inadequate public regulation, the absence of law enforcement agents (police, military), and poor medical provisions perpetuate the chaos and insecurity in small-scale gold mining areas.

While money vanishes rapidly after an area is being depleted, negative environmental, health, and social impacts persist well after mining activities have ceased (see image of an abandoned mining site on the left). A major challenge to Suriname is to develop this economic activity in a way that minimizes negative effects, and instead contributes to more sustainable livelihoods for forest peoples who may, or may not, desire to incorporate gold mining into their futures.

mine

The image above shows a modern and rather large small-scale gold mine with Brazilian workers in Suriname. In the background stand two sluice-boxes.

You can read more about the social and environmental dimensions of small-scale gold mining in Suriname in my publications and professional reports, many of which were written with Suriname colleagues. Please feel free to contact me if these documents do not answer your questions or fail to satisfy your curiosity.

Contact information: Marieke Heemskerk, Haydnstraat 15, Paramaribo, Suriname. Email: mheemskerk@yahoo.com. Phone: (+597) 8886576


Copyright © Last modified: September, 2005